· Features

Why businesses can’t forget about disability equality, despite the COVID-19 challenges

While the COVID crisis has been testing for us all, those with disabilities have been badly hit, with many losing income or their ability to work. What can HR do to ensure they don’t get left behind?

The pandemic has created one of the most challenging labour markets in a generation.

According to a survey conducted last year by disability charity, Leonard Cheshire, disabled people have been hit harder than just about any other sector of society, with seven in 10 having seen a reduction in their income as a result of the pandemic.

More than half (57%) of disabled 18-24-year- olds surveyed by the charity said the pandemic had affected their ability to work, while the majority also felt that it had hit their future earnings potential.

What’s more, a fifth of employers said they were less likely to hire a disabled candidate overall.

The challenges faced by businesses are unprecedented but employers run the risk of a direct discrimination claim if they deliberately do not hire a candidate because of a disability.

Employing someone with additional support needs may seem daunting, especially for SMEs, but there are proven benefits of creating a diverse workplace.

From an external perspective, workforces which are more reflective of society in general may be attractive to customers and clients who themselves come from a range of different backgrounds.

Equally, a diverse workforce is likely to be useful in ensuring that a business can source talent from all parts of society.

Diversity also helps to ensure that a variety of different perspectives are brought to bear on business decisions, something that can prove very valuable.

General employment trends toward inclusivity in the workplace have encouraged a number of industry-leading companies, including Lloyds Banking Group, Aviva and Network Rail, to implement initiatives to support disabled workers, and it is hoped that they can inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

Employers restarting recruitment should consider putting in place clear policies and procedures in relation to the entire process, from drafting the advert to the employee’s first day.

This will help both during and after the pandemic.

Before an employer runs a recruitment campaign, they should think about the wording of the advert to ensure that disabled people are not put off applying.

For example, if there is a physical element to the role, the employer should explain the duties rather than say that the candidate must be able bodied.

It may be the case that adjustments can be made to the role so that those with physical restrictions can still do the job effectively.

Of course, employers are under a general duty not to discriminate in their recruitment arrangements and to make adjustments to their process so that disabled people can apply for roles.

‘Arrangements’ is a wide concept and can cover things like the physical requirements of attending an interview as well as the need to undergo psychometric or written testing.

Any assessments must be justified in light of the job the candidate is applying for and may need to be adjusted.

In a similar vein, employers should not ask questions about a candidate’s health prior to offering them employment, except in limited circumstances such as ascertaining whether the candidate will be able to attend an interview or where an intrinsic aspect of the job requires a certain function to be carried out.

Once an employer has made a decision and offered someone a job, it can then ask further questions about health, however, the employer is under a duty to make reasonable adjustment to allow the person to take up employment.

It may be advisable to obtain an occupational health or other specialist report to get a deeper understanding of the person’s condition and what adjustments may need to be made.

Whether the required changes are reasonable depends on the nature of the work, the nature of the employee’s disability and the size and resources of the employer.

For businesses which are unclear on their responsibility, or on the steps they can take to further inclusion in the workplace, there are a number of organisations out there which can help.

For example, one of Law at Work’s sister companies Managed Occupational Health is an occupational health specialist and can give advice
on adjustments a business can put in place to make the workspace more accessible.

Similarly, charities like Remploy provide training and advice to businesses and there are other organisations that can provide specialist support, depending on the case. It is vital that those with disabilities do not get left behind in our post-COVID recovery.

Gerry O’Hare is senior associate employment solicitor at employment law and HR firm, Law At Work.

This piece appears in the March/April 2021 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.