All workplaces must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so that staff with disabilities are not hampered in their work, and schools are no exception. This issue shows how you can help to support disability equality for staff in your school, and who can provide you with the advice and funding to do this

As business managers we are responsible for creating an open and supportive environment for all employees in the school and at times we may need to make changes or ‘reasonable adjustments’ to enable our staff to meet their objectives and performance targets and this includes any employee who has a disability. This derives from The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) which gives schools general and specific duties to promote disability equality and to produce a Disability Equality Scheme (DES), and I am sure that you will have ensured that this is already in place at your school.

This scheme ensures that schools include disabled people in all aspects of school life, whether staff, parents, students or outside agencies, and give due regard to:

  • promoting equality of opportunity between disabled people and other people
  • eliminating discrimination which is unlawful under the Act
  • eliminating harassment of disabled people that is related to their disabilities
  • promoting positive attitudes towards disabled people
  • taking steps to take account of disabled people’s disabilities even where this involves treating disabled people more favourably than other people
  • encouraging participation by disabled people in public life.

The scheme must also include:

  • a statement of how disabled people have been involved in developing the scheme
  • an action plan that includes practical ways in which improvement will be made
  • the arrangements in place for gathering information about how the school has done in meeting its targets on disability equality.

To understand the DDA and complete the DES we should consider whether we actually understand what disability means and who is included. The DDA defines a disabled person as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. This can include people with diabetes, asthma, back problems, facial disfigurements and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder; cancer, multiple sclerosis (MS) and HIV are all included. For the purposes of the Act:

  • substantial means neither minor nor trivial
  • long-term means that the effect of the impairment has lasted or is likely to last for at least 12 months (there are special rules covering recurring or fluctuating conditions – contact your HR team to clarify this)
  • normal day-to-day activities include everyday things like eating, washing, walking and going shopping.

Governing bodies also have a statutory responsibility for the health and emotional wellbeing of staff and students at their school. This may include overseeing or leading an initiative and governors should be ensuring that their schools comply with all aspects of discrimination law, especially as specific duties were laid down in 2006 for schools to promote equality in disability. It is important, therefore, that governors are aware of current disability law legislation to effectively carry out their duties and to ensure that barriers which discriminate against staff with a disability are removed.

The need for reasonable adjustments
Reasonable adjustments are required to make sure an employee who has a disability is not put at a substantial disadvantage. Reasonable adjustments like those below should be considered in consultation with the employee:

  • allocating some of their work to someone else
  • transferring them to another post
  • flexibility of hours
  • re-training if they are unable to undertake their current job any longer
  • provision of modified equipment
  • provision of a reader or interpreter
  • provision of Braille texts.

SBMs should be aware that these reasonable adjustments can affect other team members who do not have a disability. This can depend on the culture of the school and within the team and for this reason team leaders should ensure that any requests for reasonable adjustments are considered clearly and fairly so that team members can support adjustments made for a colleague without any resentment. Please remember that if you do not have the responsibility of HR within your role, then you will not always be aware of the type of disability that an employee has – you may only be informed of the type of adjustment that has been made or is required.

If you do need advice on reasonable adjustments, there are specialist agencies and organisations that can guide you such as:

Considering the cost of reasonable adjustments is something that will ring alarm bells for business managers, but usually costs are minimal. The cost is not just about the price of making the adaptations and considerations could include:

  • the experience and skill of the employee
  • cost of replacing that employee
  • length of employment (it is more likely to be reasonable to make an expensive adjustment for a permanent employee than a temp)
  • whether the adjustment is of benefit to all employees whether disabled or non-disabled.

We would all rather do things the easy way where reasonable adjustments are concerned, so SBMs should consider whether the disadvantage can easily be removed by changing the way things are done, or the equipment that is used. Reasonable adjustments can be permanent or temporary and can involve steps, kerbs, paving, seating areas, parking spaces, toilets, lifts, signs, furniture and so on. Planning permission or permission from the school’s landlord may be required before you make any physical change.

Of course there will be occasions when the cost may be significant, such as a school that has a two storey building with a staffroom on the top floor. What happens when you have a member of staff who is a wheelchair user? Many years ago I actually worked in a school (not as an SBM) where the staffroom was up three flights of stairs and the wheelchair user was assigned to a small room on the lower floor, isolated from other staff members. I have not visited the school since, but I was amazed that at the time the management of the school had not considered moving the staffroom from the top floor to the ground floor, even if it meant changing the use of the staffroom to a classroom and visa versa. A lift probably wouldn’t have been an option as structural work to a building is complex and expensive, but approaches such as changing the use of a room would be considered a reasonable adjustment. The benefit of the change to the disabled member of staff would be substantial both mentally and physically.

When considering costs also research external funding to assist with any adjustment; financial help from government schemes such as Access to Work or your local authority is available towards making reasonable adjustments.

At my school we have a commitment to retain employees who become disabled and make every effort to ensure they stay in our employment. By showing this commitment employees will know that should they become disabled they will have our support and also means that we will keep a valuable and experienced member of staff, saving on the cost of recruiting a replacement. This commitment is known to all our staff. This does not mean that as employers we apply different standards to disabled staff; what we actually do is consider various options (reasonable adjustments) should an employee’s disability be the reason for issues in performance. Finally, whatever the reasonable adjustment may be at your school, at the heart of any decision should be the member(s) of staff concerned – our staff are precious assets to the school, and we must respond sensitively to their needs.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2010

About the author: Lindsey Lester is School Business Manager at St Martins Catholic School, Leicester