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Disability and the Workplace Beyond Covid

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Over two months have passed since Wales’ equivalent of “Freedom Day” on 7th August.

Many employers have been keen to get more staff back to the office, but it’s important to recognise and act on the fact that not all employees are sharing that excitement, especially employees with disabilities.

A survey conducted by Scope indicated that only 2% of disabled people felt safe about “Freedom Day” in England and the most up-to-date data shows that 68% of deaths from COVID-19 were among disabled people in Wales. It is no wonder that many disabled employees are feeling anxious about returning to the workplace.

Carys Strong, Employee Partner at Chwarae Teg chats to Business News Wales about the impact of returning to the workplace for the disabled people.

Carys said:

“The research conducted by Scope earlier this year really demonstrated the concerns that people had over the lifting of restrictions, particularly from disabled people.”

“What’s freedom to some will be the complete opposite for others who have genuine fears over the risk of their health. The lack of support could mean that disabled people are left isolated and vulnerable.”

According to Carys, there are two ‘models’ to describe disability, the Medical Model and the Social Model of disability.

With the medical model, a person’s impairments are the focus of the disadvantage but with the social model, the focus is on the environment around them that causes the disadvantage. For example, lack of access to buildings and negative attitudes. In short, it is society that is the issue and not a person’s condition.

Despite the importance of the social model, equality legislation is based on the medical model, namely the Equality Act 2010. The Act defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial (more than trivial) and long-term (lasting or expecting to last at least 12 months) adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities (not necessarily work-related but everyday tasks such as going to the shops, personal hygiene and socialising).

This definition captures many conditions including mental health conditions that have been on the rise during the pandemic.

If an employee is disabled under the Act, they will have legal protection from discrimination, harassment and victimisation in the workplace which an employer could be held liable for. The employer would also have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for that employee.

But what does Carys think needs to be done to make people more aware of the concerns with?

“From a workplace perspective, employers have a legal and moral obligation to be aware of these issues facing employees.”

She stresses the importance of employers understanding what they need to do to support disabled employees back into the workplace.