Normalising adjustments and accommodations


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Noise-cancelling headphones and adjustable height desks are among the equipment that can help employees be more comfortable at work 

The word reasonable does a lot of heavy lifting in law. Negligence depends to some extent on how a reasonable person would approach a situation. Reasonable doubt means a jury should not convict a defendant. And reasonable adjustments should be made in the workplace to accommodate employees and job applicants with disabilities.

Exactly what counts as reasonable is difficult to define, in part because it is so specific to the particular situation involved. So grey areas naturally arise (sometimes only to be resolved after lengthy legal battles). It is deemed reasonable that disabled employees should receive whatever they need to not be disadvantaged compared with their non-disabled colleagues; but at the same time, those changes are deemed unreasonable if they’re too expensive. (We’ll have to leave the definition of expensive for another time.)

Many reasonable adjustments requested by employees are inexpensive; the Business Disability Forum reported in 2022 that the average cost is £75 per person. Some, like allowing flexible working hours, don’t cost anything. But the stigma of having to ask for them or the fear of appearing to seek special treatment – of appearing unreasonable – means that not everyone asks for the support they need.

During a recent Neurodiversity Celebration Week webinar, some panellists expressed their dislike of the phrase reasonable adjustments. A preferred term was workplace adjustments. This is a phrase that goes beyond legal minimum requirements for equity, encompassing any kind of support employees need to do their job effectively. A software developer might need a more powerful laptop than other employees; someone working with a toxic reagent might need additional PPE; a dyslexic person might benefit from text-to-speech software. Without the right equipment and environment, none of us can do our jobs well.

Employers need to normalise the attitude that we all need some form of assistance at work – ideally by proactively advertising and offering support to employees, but at least by having a clear and fair process for requests. Establishing an inclusive workplace culture is also essential. Employees who feel safe at work are more likely to request adjustments and to feel comfortable using any specialist equipment around colleagues. If having a happy workforce isn’t enough of a reason to support this then the resulting increase in productivity should be, as it is likely to far outweigh the cost of the adjustment.

That said, not all requests will be immediately manageable or affordable, particularly if they involve significant changes to a building’s structure. That’s why we need to ensure new buildings are designed to be as inclusive as possible from the beginning. That’s reasonable by anyone’s definition.