Employing disabled interns: Making reasonable adjustments
Disabled employees are protected by the Equality Act 2010, and there is a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees or prospective employees. At one level, making reasonable adjustments is simply about doing whatever you can reasonably do to make sure that you attract the best candidates for jobs, and make the best arrangements for employees to do a good job. However, the law does give this common sense thinking a sharper edge: if employers fail to make reasonable adjustments that disabled employees need, then they are likely to be acting unlawfully.
Employed interns are protected by the same law that applies to making reasonable adjustments for all employees, namely, The Equality Act 2010. However, for interns there are some particular considerations:
- Internships are relatively short term forms of employment, and this has a bearing on what counts as ‘reasonable’ adjustments.
- Interns have a degree or equivalent. If they were disabled when they gained the qualification, then they may have needed additional equipment which, under the Disabled Student Allowance Scheme, thereafter belongs to the student or graduate. Or they may have needed a communication or other support worker, giving the student or graduate valuable experience which is carried forward into employment.
Of course, reasonable adjustments only make sense in the study or employment environment within which the disabled person is working: it’s some feature or features of the environment that might need adjusted. And the adjustment has to work for a particular individual. Some adjustments might work in the setting of higher education, but not within the particular circumstances of a workplace. Disabled interns are themselves likely to know what works best for them in context.
What is the same is the point of the adjustment: it’s to make sure that within that context – study or work – a disabled person is not substantially disadvantaged by comparison with a student or employee who is not disabled. Employers are left to make a judgment call about the disadvantage and how substantial it might be. But the judgment can often be made by couching it in familiar terms:
- If you are excluded from a daily work-team planning meeting, you are likely to be more disadvantaged than if you are excluded from a one-off, brief meeting on a subject that is, within the terms of the organisation’s work, of limited importance.
- If you are invited to interview and, despite asking for adjustments in advance, discover that the adjustments are not in place on the day, then you could argue substantial disadvantage if you can fairly attribute your rejection to the failure to make adjustments The disadvantage is ‘substantial’ because of the enormity of what you are losing.
What is it that might need to be adjusted?
The short answer is that it is whatever is preventing a disabled person from having the same workplace opportunities as a person who is not disabled. Ideally, adjustments are considered in advance of being requested by individuals, so that the organisation is accessible by design.
You might need to think about adjustments to:
Policies and practices, such as those applying to all stages of recruitment, including drawing up a Job Description and Person Specification:
An organisation has a policy of requesting equality monitoring data in job adverts, but does not refer to these during the short-listing process. The policy is adjusted so that positive action can be taken in favour of disabled candidates.
Physical features of the work place, such as seating, lighting, or height of a desk:
An organisation anticipates the need to make reasonable adjustments by choosing a variety of types of seating and desks for an office space when it is refurbishing the space.
The technology used at work:
A text telephone is purchased so that an organisation can communicate with service users who rely on this form of communication. Staff training is provided, and the team is familiar with the technology when a deaf intern joins them.
Text to speech and mind-mapping software are installed on all PCs, and all staff given training in using them. This anticipates adjustments that might be useful for some disabled people.
Where the job is typically done:
A busy office space is proving a difficult work environment for a disabled intern whose impairment impacts on concentration. A meeting room which is generally free is made available whenever possible.
The job profile or list of tasks associated with a job description:
A disabled intern who has a speech impairment would be unable to contact service users by telephone. The work is spread so that a colleague does more telephone work, and the intern has a heavier work load using email to communicate with service users.
The hours of work:
Difficulties with transport make a 9am start problematic for a particular disabled intern. By agreement, the intern arrives later, and makes up the time later in the day.
How colleagues and others work and interact:
After discussion with a deaf intern, deaf awareness training is provided for all staff so that everyone knows how to enable the intern to lip read.
Arrangements for work allocation and supervision:
An intern who has mental health difficulties impacting on confidence and stress has a mentor assigned to meet with the intern on a daily basis to help identify any undue stressors associated with work.
How do you know what’s reasonable?
To reiterate, the aim of a reasonable adjustment is to make sure that a disabled person is not ‘substantially disadvantaged’ by comparison with people who are not disabled. Although the law cannot say in advance exactly what is, in a particular case, going to be ‘reasonable’, it does allow employers to take various things into account when thinking about whether a particular adjustment is reasonable:
Is the adjustment going to be effective in avoiding the disadvantage that would otherwise occur? The more effective the adjustment, the more reasonable it is likely to be.
A Deaf intern uses British Sign Language. The employer considers BSL training for all staff to provide a basic level of communication. However, this is unlikely to be effective within the timescale envisaged for the three month internship. A BSL interpreter is arranged as required.
The employer in the above example decides to support two employees to undertake BSL training so that the organisation is better prepared to welcome and communicate with Deaf people in future. In this way she is thinking about how to anticipate reasonable adjustments.
Is the adjustment practical? Although easier adjustments are likely to be more reasonable, an adjustment is not rendered ‘unreasonable’ just by being more difficult.
An intern who uses speech-to-text software needs a quiet area for work. There is no additional office space available. The employer, whose work regularly takes him out of the office, makes his office available for most of the time, and reaches agreement with a neighbouring organisation that one of their meeting rooms can be used at other times.
What size is the organisation and what resources does it have?
An organisation undertakes international development work and within the UK has an office in all major cities. It attracts considerable government funding. Costly adjustments are likely to be more reasonable within that context than within a three-person organisation reliant on intermittent local authority grants.
The smaller organisation in the above example considers lower cost solutions which are useful, if slightly less effective than more costly ones.
Is the adjustment, within the context of financial resources available to the organisation, costly?
Although the budget allocated to the Falkirk branch of a particular charitable organisation is relatively small, the organisation as a whole attracts considerable charitable funding. It is the resources of the organisation and not a particular office that need to be taken into account.
Is there funding to help pay for the adjustment?
Many adjustments are simple to make and cost free. However, if an adjustment is ‘reasonable’ then the employer has to pay for it. However, the Government Access to Work Scheme can help give advice and support to disabled people, and can also help with extra costs that would not be reasonable for an employers or prospective employer to pay. For example, Access To Work might pay towards the cost of getting to work if the disabled person cannot use public transport, or for assistance with communication at job interviews. For a small organisation, particularly a charity, where budgets may be very restrictive and it would be difficult for the organisation to pay for adjustments, Access to Work is likely to provide funding to cover these costs in most circumstances.
A person may be able to get advice and support from Access to Work if they are:
- in a paid job, or
- unemployed and about to start a job, or
- unemployed and about to start a Work Trial, or
- self-employed; and
- their disability or health condition stops them from being able to do parts of their job.
You might need to make interim arrangements before Access to Work funding is agreed.
Further Resources and Information
Extensive guidance for employers on making reasonable adjustments is available from the Equality and Human Rights Commission at http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/advice-and-guidance/guidance-for-employers/
If you would like further advice, support or further information about making reasonable adjustments for interns, then please contact us