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Who decides what adjustments are ‘reasonable’ or not?

Who decides what adjustments are ‘reasonable’ or not?

Phil Steventon


Reading time: five minutes

‘Reasonable adjustments’ are the changes employers make to the workplace or to processes to remove a disadvantage relating to an employee’s disability.

The right to request reasonable adjustments at work is contained in the Equality Act 2010, Section 20. These adjustments include:

  • changing a physical feature or process;
  • changing a working arrangement; and 
  • providing aids with which to work around an obstacle or barrier.

These adjustments are usually suggested or requested by disabled employees, perhaps in conjunction with a medical professional like a GP or an occupational health professional.

Who decides what’s ‘reasonable’?

The employer decides whether it’ll agree to the adjustments requested, and makes the decision as to whether the adjustments are deemed ‘reasonable’.

Typically, when assessing reasonableness, employers consider factors including:

  • whether it’ll aid or reduce the disadvantage to the employee;
  • whether it’s practical to implement the adjustment;
  • the cost associated with the adjustment;
  • whether there’s help available to make the adjustment (eg, Access to Work);
  • whether there’s any disruption to other staff and clients; and
  • whether there are any health and safety concerns for the employee or others involved in making the adjustment.

It’s a highly subjective topic as each disabled employee’s needs will be unique. If there’s a disagreement as to whether an adjustment is reasonable then the employment tribunal will make a decision.

Learn about the new SQE and reasonable adjustments in this LCN Says.

Why’s this?

The law of employment’s history is based on a master/servant relationship that originated from Roman law principles, and this is still the case today. There are different levels of authority within a company, and so there are plenty of employee/supervisor or master/servant relationships between people at different levels within the company. This has been the case for hundreds of years and, sadly, it hasn’t kept pace with the times.

These relationships are fundamentally paternalistic, implying that the master/pater knows best. Sounds infantilising? That’s because it is!

The more up-to-date way of looking at this is that the burden of getting the decision correct is on the employer. Because if the employer gets it wrong, the employment tribunal has the power to award damages to the affected employee, and this comes out of the employer’s pocket.

However, this doesn’t take into consideration that disabled people face significant practical, emotional and financial barriers to accessing the employment tribunal, as well as legal advice and representation. The stress and anxiety of the matter, from the uncertain outcome and the costs of instructing legal advisers to actually having the matter heard at the tribunal, are strong dissuasions to employees seeking an outcome.

Remember the disability pay gap for 2022 stated that disabled workers would take home £3,731 a year less than our non-disabled peers for a 35-hour working week. With both the fees for legal advice and tribunals each being in the thousands, it’s not surprising that many of us simply can’t afford to dispute our employer over malpractice and poor behaviour.

Read more about the disability pay gap in one of my previous posts.

Is this problematic?

The idea that the employer has the final say over what that employee needs to be able to work at their best can be problematic. Because the disabled employee is, essentially, in the hands of what an employer believes is its own best judgement or what it thinks is best for the employee. This is often decided without the employer understanding the employee’s abilities and challenges, and at times after the employee has already expressed what they need in order to work at their best. The person who knows an employee best is the employee themself, and it may be that they’ve had years to understand how they work best.

If an employer or supervisor says to an employee that the requested adjustment isn’t reasonable, if they decide to remove it despite what the employee has repeatedly expressed or if a supervisor simply doesn’t like the proposed adjustment, it’ll leave the employee in a highly disadvantageous position. If the employee can’t work at their best, both the employee and the employer suffer.

For example, an adjustment for me is that I receive instructions in writing over email. If they’re given over the phone, I might miss something because of auditory processing difficulties from time to time. If they’re given via an app like Microsoft Teams, my brain may subconsciously mark them as lower priority than an email because of the higher priority I place on emails. But at one workplace this was taken away because an immediate supervisor didn’t like it.

I felt dehumanised, invalidated and (like above) infantilised because someone who didn’t understand me or what I needed to work used their own judgement and perceptions of what they believed was right.

I doubt this stance is going to change any time soon so long as there are still employers who hold on to this way of thinking, and so long as senior staff and junior staff need each other – for example, seniors needing juniors for support, and juniors needing seniors for training and mentoring as they progress their careers.

If we could revise the relationship, what could it look like?

Some companies are employee-owned businesses, meaning employees own a stake in the business. Studies have shown that employee-owned businesses are more productive, innovative and resilient to economic turbulence. Plus, employees have a greater chance to impact the company’s culture. After all, they own a stake in it, so why wouldn’t they want a say in it? This might be a way forward.

Or perhaps more emphasis on a genuine partnership between employer and employee, rather than the historical master/servant relationship, with the understanding that each party gives and receives something, and that everyone’s perspectives and needs are validated.

I don’t have the answer yet. But I believe the age-old master-servant mindset leaves disabled employees disadvantaged when it comes to having what they need to remove inherent disadvantages in the workplace. It’s due for a serious update sooner rather than later.