Accessibility: What are an employer’s obligations to staff and visitors and what practical improvements can be made?
In the UK, employers and public service providers alike have legal obligations to ensure their premises and services are accessible. Unfortunately, however, despite the legal obligations, individuals with a disability still routinely find their needs overlooked, both as employees and potential clients and customers.
This article aims to set out an overview of employers’ legal obligations to staff and visitors, and to provide practical examples organisations can consider to improve their accessibility. We also hope that by sharing our own experiences, and hosting future open panel events, we can further assist our clients and the charitable partners we proudly support.
“Not only is it a legal requirement, but it also makes commercial sense for businesses to target the ‘purple pound’," adds Lady-Marie Dawson-Malcolm, Partnerships Co-ordinator of the SIA, and a member of the Built Environment Accessibility Panel at Network rail.
“Collectively, disabled people have significant spending power and there is a lot of money businesses are missing out on by not making their services easily accessible”.
Employers also risk losing out on a wealth of talented employees if they fail to demonstrate they can provide an attractive and inclusive environment. 23% of working age adults are disabled, and the disability employment gap (the difference between the proportion of disabled and non-disabled people in employment) is estimated to be 29%. Whilst not everyone with a disability will want (or be able to) work, those who do should be better supported.
The Equality Act
The Equality Act, enacted in 2010, sets out the framework for promoting equality and preventing discrimination.
The Act is the primary legislation that governs accessibility requirements in the UK. It consolidates and strengthens previous anti-discrimination laws, making it unlawful for employers to discriminate against individuals on the basis of disability. The Act applies to all employers, regardless of the size of their organisation, and covers a wide range of areas, including recruitment, training, promotions, and dismissals.
Under this legislation, employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate individuals with disabilities, ensuring that they have equal access to employment opportunities and services.
Definition of Disability
The Act defines disability as ‘a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.’ This definition is intentionally broad, encompassing a wide range of conditions, both visible and invisible.
Employers must be mindful of the breadth of the definition and be cautious not to inadvertently discriminate against individuals based on their disability.
One of the key obligations for employers under the Equality Act is the requirement to make reasonable adjustments.
Reasonable adjustments are changes or adaptations to the workplace or working practices that aim to remove barriers for individuals with disabilities. The nature of these adjustments will vary depending on the circumstances, but they could include providing assistive technology, modifying the physical environment, or adjusting work schedules.
The Equality Act provides that the duty to make reasonable adjustments comprises the following three requirements:
- If a practice or condition puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage compared to non-disabled individuals in a relevant matter, an employer must take reasonable steps to avoid this disadvantage.
- If a physical feature puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage compared to non-disabled individuals in a relevant matter, an employer must take reasonable steps to avoid this disadvantage.
- If a disabled person would face a substantial disadvantage in a relevant matter without the provision of an auxiliary aid, an employer must take reasonable steps to provide the necessary auxiliary aid.
What constitutes a reasonable adjustment will depend on factors such as the size and resources of the employer, the cost and practicality of the adjustment, and the needs of the individual. It is important to note that the duty to make reasonable adjustments extends not only to employees, but also to visitors, such as customers or clients, who may have disabilities.
Accessibility in practice
Using new technology, improving communications and the working environment, and strengthening partnerships with staff, clients and communities, organisations have the opportunity to not only meet their legal requirements but enhance their services and broaden their potential markets.
Marketing and communications
Organisations should ensure that websites and digital content are compatible with assistive technologies and consider individuals with a disability during the design of their marketing materials. For example, offering video content with closed or open captions and making good use of ‘alt text’ on website images.
When hosting events consider the space, the facilities to available to those with a disability, and the ease of access to and from the location.
When communicating with clients, consider providing alternative formats for written materials to assist anyone with a visual impairment.
A marketing and communications checklist could be a good starting point ensuring that due consideration has been given to reaching and engaging with the broadest possible audience.
Facilities and equipment
Practically, reasonable adjustments might involve providing accessible facilities, such as wheelchair ramps or accessible toilets, or making adjustments to workstations to accommodate specific needs.
Simple changes could include installing audio induction loops at receptions to assist those with hearing loss, or offering additional training to front of house staff, ensuring any visitors with a disability (both visible and invisible) feel welcome and comfortable.
When considering remote working or hybrid working policies, employers should ensure that employees have access to appropriate equipment both at home and in the workplace.
It is important to not only review existing premises and procedures, but to make the information more widely available for any visitors or staff with practical considerations in advance.
Access Guides for premises are a great starting point to provide detailed information online on everything from parking, toilet facilities, entrance and exit routes and access to other facilities.
Lady-Marie Dawson-Malcolm of the SIA provided further suggestions organisations could consider, for example “rather than using impersonal ‘chatbots’, organisations could use a live chat feature so that visitors can ask practical questions to staff and access the specific information they need easily. Organisations should also consider whether any access guides themselves are accessible to all, and how the information is presented, making use of photographs, videos and potentially 3D tours where appropriate.”
Engaging with staff, visitors and partners
Employers should proactively engage with their staff and visitors to understand their specific accessibility requirements. By fostering an open and inclusive dialogue, employers can identify potential barriers and implement appropriate adjustments.
Regularly reviewing accessibility policies and practices can also ensure that employers are meeting their obligations.
Partnering with local charities and communities can help employers to understand the needs of disabled people for example hosting events with local charities can help to raise awareness and ensure facilities and services can meet the needs of a broad range of clients and customers.
As part of RWK Goodman’s ongoing commitment to promoting equality, diversity and inclusivity, a working group of individuals from across the firm have looked carefully at how we can take our existing values and practices and improve upon them, setting ourselves an ambitious aim to be an industry-leading accessible law firm.
- We are proud to be committed to Disability Confident, a government-led scheme to create a diverse working environment.
- We will shortly be publishing detailed Office Access guides on our website to assist clients, staff and others attending the office with any practical considerations.
- We have a dedicated accessibility email address where any specific questions can be raised ahead of an individual’s visit.
- Across the business we support clients with a wide range of disabilities and regularly share our office space with the charitable organisations who support our clients and local communities.
- Further upgrades are being made to our working environment with our Bath office’s redevelopment.
We recognise that placing accessibility at the forefront of our services requires a long-term commitment and desire to continually assess and improve our premises, policies and client services.
We also aim to share knowledge by hosting a future accessibility panel event - bringing together legal experts, charitable partners and clients - and providing a space to raise questions, share experience and think creatively about how we can all take steps to be more accessible and inclusive organisations.
Here to help
If you are interested in joining a future event hosted by our accessibility panel, or if you have any questions regarding attending our offices, please email [email protected]
For more information or assistance in understanding and fulfilling their obligations, employers can seek guidance from our Employment team.
It is with great pride in our personal injury and clinical negligence teams, and the experts and charities that they work with, that we present this edition of Team Around the Client magazine focusing on spinal medical and legal issues.