Creating a safe space: How to ensure your workplace supports disabled employees

When creating a workspace within which it is safe for all employees to work, one of the often-overlooked aspects relates to employees who have a disability. There is a tremendous amount of variation in terms of what accommodations a disabled employee might need to be made to ensure the workplace is as safe for them as possible. 

Regardless of any employee’s physical abilities, the workplace setting always poses a certain degree of risk. For employees with a disability, the risks are many times greater as they may be unable to work entirely safely in a traditionally designed workplace. 

For this reason, when you are looking to manage risks at work, you need to think of the abilities of non-disabled employees when you are designing risk management plans. You also need to consider the needs of any current or future disabled employees.

Your obligation as an employer

Accommodating the needs of disabled employees is not something you need to do based on goodwill alone. There are currently several legal obligations for employers to make sure the workplace setting is inclusive for individuals with disabilities. A failure to comply with these legal obligations could see employers and companies liable to pay compensation to individuals who have been disadvantaged by this failure — which is also a reminder that it is essential to have adequate insurance coverage in place. For this reason, employers must keep in mind the needs of all employees and potential employees when assessing the overall safety of the workplace. Risk assessments should be carried out regularly and should take the specific needs of all employees into consideration.

Visible and invisible disabilities

When designing a workplace that protects both non-disabled and disabled employees’ safety and interests, we also need to remember that disabilities come in many forms. An important distinction between ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ disabilities needs to be kept in mind. Visible disabilities might refer to impairments that are more immediately obvious, such as limitations on mobility. In contrast, invisible disabilities would cover conditions or impairments you might not be immediately able to notice, such as mental health issues, epilepsy, hearing impairment, respiratory conditions, and even learning disabilities. While visible disabilities are often well-catered for, the latter category tends to be overlooked when designing a safe and inclusive workspace.

Creating workplace awareness

One of the most important aspects of ensuring your workplace is safe and inclusive for people with disabilities is to ensure that you increase awareness of this issue throughout the workplace. Having an informed workforce aware of the problems presented by the workplace setting for people with disabilities means you can continually adapt the environment to their individual needs. One way of doing that is by appointing a disability awareness advocate within your workforce. When a disabled employee encounters an issue within the workplace, they will be able to approach the advocate who can then act on their behalf with the management to work out solutions to their individual needs.

In addition to having a workplace advocate in place, the management team also need to ensure they have a comprehensive disability and inclusivity policy. It is usually a high-level document put together by the management team in collaboration with someone from human resources, which is then implemented within the workplace. Disability policies should be kept fully up to date and revisited regularly. A workplace disability advocate can also help develop the policy as necessary and act as a neutral party between the lower-level employees and the management team.

Looking to the future

With all that said, for many disabled workers, there is hope on the horizon when it comes to supporting disabled individuals in the workplace. The gradual shift to online and remote working, which has substantially picked up pace during the COVID-19 pandemic, has many benefits for individual disabled workers. Given that so many workplace settings are ill-suited to the needs of disabled people, working from home allows such individuals to work in a space that not only caters to their specific needs but presents fewer occupational risks than you would see in a traditional workplace setting. The present remote working revolution could help society create more opportunities for disabled individuals marginalized from conventional workplaces.