Line manager guide to supporting staff with disabilities

Definitions of disability

The Equality Act 2010 defines disability as follows: “A person has a disability if s/he has a physical or mental impairment, which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on that person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.

Long-term means that the impairment has lasted or is likely to last for at least 12 months or for the rest of the affected person’s life. Substantial means more than minor or trivial.

Cancer, HIV infection, multiple sclerosis, and some sight conditions are deemed disabilities under the Act from the point of diagnosis. Other progressive conditions are covered by the Act from the moment the condition results in an impairment which has some effect on ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, even though not a substantial effect, if that impairment might well have a substantial adverse effect on such ability in the future.

Physical impairments include sensory impairments, such as those affecting sight or hearing, and the term ‘mental impairment’ is intended to cover a wide range of impairments relating to mental functioning, including what are often known as learning disabilities.

There is no need for a person to establish a medically diagnosed cause for their impairment. More importantly, consideration should be given to the effect of the impairment, not the cause.  Furthermore, those who have recovered from a disability may continue to be protected by the provisions of the Equality Act.

Full definitions are set out in Appendix 1 (79kb) of the Equality and Human Rights commission statutory code of practice.

Duties under the Equality Act

The Equality Act requires employers to: eliminate discrimination, victimisation and harassment; to promote equality of opportunity for disabled employees; and foster good relations between people with a disability and others who do not. Employers should take positive steps to ensure that disabled people can access and progress in employment. This goes beyond simply avoiding treating disabled workers, job applicants and potential job applicants less favourably; and means taking additional steps to which non-disabled workers and applicants are not entitled.

The primary duty is to “make reasonable adjustments” which may mean any or all of the following:

  • Addressing situations where a provision, criterion or practice applied by or on behalf of the employer puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage compared to those who are not disabled.
  • Removing or altering a physical feature or providing a reasonable means of avoiding such a feature where it puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage compared to those who are not disabled.
  • Providing an auxiliary aid (i.e. something which provides support or assistance to a disabled person. This might include an adapted keyboard, text-to-speech software, or an auxiliary service, e.g. provision of a sign language interpreter or a support worker) where a disabled person would, without the provision of that auxiliary aid, be put at a substantial disadvantage compared to those who are not disabled.

There is also a duty on employers not to treat disabled people less favourably because of something arising from their disability.

Dislosure of disability

Employees vary in their preferences regarding the disclosure of a disability. The University seeks to encourage staff to disclose any disability so that proper consideration can be given to arranging reasonable adjustments if appropriate. The University’s pre-employment medical health questionnaire includes provision for individuals to consent to information about a disability being shared with their employing department, for the purposes of properly considering reasonable adjustments. 

Consent to share information about a disability must always be sought from the individual concerned in accordance with the GDPR and related UK data protection legislation.

The departments may become aware of an employee’s disability in a number of ways, including:

  • when declared during the recruitment and selection process
  • in PDR (appraisal) discussions
  • at the time of transfer/promotion/relocation
  • in relation to safety issues
  • through application for ill-health retirement
  • through advice from the Occupational Health Service or the Staff Disability Advisor
  • through the management of poor performance
  • through sickness absence management

When a university manager or service provider becomes aware that an employee has a disability, s/he should:

  • discuss with the staff member who within the University may be made aware of the disability and seek written consent to this
  • consider whether further advice or support  (regarding reasonable adjustments, for example) should be sought from the Occupational Health Service, Personnel Services, or Staff Disability Advisor
  • ensure that the staff record on CoreHR is updated for equal opportunities monitoring purposes (via the Equality and Diversity Unit).

Confidentiality is important in managing employees with a disability. Managers should not discuss a person’s disability with others unless they have obtained the consent of the individual concerned, except where there is good reason to believe that the safety of the employee, or another person, may be endangered unless information is disclosed.

Recruitment of disabled employees

Care should be taken with the arrangements for recruitment and selection so that the University does not miss the potential offered by people with disabilities and that discrimination does not inadvertently occur.

Designing the job

  • Ensure that job descriptions are not discriminatory by ensuring that adverts and further particular focus on objective job requirements, such as ‘patrolling a building on three floors’ rather than subjective descriptions such as ‘must be physically fit’.
  • Consider whether posts might be offered on a part-time basis.

Shortlisting and interview arrangements

  • Remember to ask candidates to indicate whether any reasonable adjustments are required for the interview process, using the standard letter.  Reasonable adjustments may mean ensuring that the interview room is accessible, or appropriately equipped, or adapting selection exercises for example to grant extra time.
  • It is important not to make assumptions about the feasibility of making adjustments that may be required to accommodate any disability that has been declared: wherever the candidate is suitably qualified for the post, he or she should be short listed for interview regardless of the disability. If you are concerned that it may not be possible to make the job accessible to an applicant take advice from Personnel Services in the first instance before the interview.

Starting work

  • If physical adjustments are required consider the Access to Work Scheme, which is a government funding scheme run by JobCentre Plus. It provides funding for adaptations to the workplace both on recruitment and during employment of individuals with a disability. This includes specialist equipment, premises alterations, assistance travelling to and from work, and some personal support (although specialist tuition and medical supervision are not included). Applications must be made by the employee (although managers should ensure that an application has been made if funding is needed).  Retrospective claims for funding are not considered. It should be noted that the scheme will fund 100% of approved costs for employees starting or changing posts. However, after six weeks in post the scheme will only fund approved costs above £300, and only 80% of costs up to the value of £10,000 will be met (100% of approved costs over the value of £10,000 will be met).

Retention of disabled employees

Issues about the retention of a disabled employee may arise when an employee becomes disabled or if a disability worsens during the course of employment. It might also arise when an employee has a stable impairment but the nature of his or her employment changes (for example if the employee is relocated or if duties change). 

In such circumstance, the employing department must:

  • consider any reasonable adjustments that would resolve the difficulty, and implement any adjustments identified, within a reasonable timescale.

Deciding on how to make a reasonable adjustment

Examples of adjustments might include:

  • adjustments to the employee’s working hours
  • adjusting the employee’s work location
  • permitting absence in working hours for rehabilitation, assessment or treatment
  • giving additional training
  • acquiring or modifying equipment
  • providing personal support (e.g. a note taker for meetings, interpreter, etc)
  • adjustments to premises
  • allocating some of the employee’s duties to another person
  • transferring the employee to fill an existing vacancy
  • modifying instructions or reference manuals

In deciding what is reasonable, the resources available to the employer as a whole should be taken into account. This would include funding from the Access to Work scheme (

The disabled employee should normally be involved in discussions about the effects of the disability and in considering any reasonable adjustments that might help. Experience suggests that situations are most fruitfully addressed when the person concerned is involved from the start. It is important to keep accurate written records at every stage of the assessment process, and to give reasons for decisions.

Detailed advice on making reasonable adjustments can be obtained from your HRBP who may also signpost you to the University’s Occupational Health Service and the Staff Disability Advisor.  It is possible that a specialised assessment of the individual and the workplace will be required. Specialist external advice may be sought at this stage by the Occupational Health Service, normally from the Oxfordshire Employment Service. (The Oxfordshire Employment Service supports people with long-term health issues or disabilities to keep paid employment.) Further information regarding what may constitute a reasonable adaptation is available on the Equality and Human Rights Commission website which can be accessed via the following link:

Redeployment within the University

If such adjustments are not practicable within the employing department, the University would be expected to consider redeploying a disabled employee to an alternative post within the wider University, providing that a suitable vacancy exists.

However, redeployment within an individual’s own department should be the first consideration. If no suitable post exists within the original department, the HRBP should try to arrange for the individual’s details to be made available to other departments, so that they are able to consider the individual’s suitability for any vacancies prior to advertising a post. Where a suitable vacancy is found it is appropriate for such a vacancy to be offered to the disabled employee without the need for a competitive interview. If such a post is available, a trial period of up to three months in the new post is recommended during which time the individual’s salary costs will be borne by the original department. 

The individual and his or her department are also advised to consult the University's website for jobs and vacancies within the University. The individual may apply for advertised posts in open competition with other applicants. They should, however, receive preferential consideration. This means that provided that the priority application arrives by the normal closing date, and the applicant meets the selection criteria he or she should be interviewed before any other candidates (and, if practicable, before any other candidates are called for interview). If suitable he or she should be offered the job (with the salary costs being borne by the recruiting department from the outset) and Occupational Health advice should be sought to identify any reasonable adjustments or additional training that may be required.

If no redeployment opportunities are available within the University, the individual can be referred to the local Jobcentre in order to investigate alternative employment options external to the University.

Dismissal of disabled employees

Where it is reasonably considered that the employment cannot continue (including consideration of any reasonable adjustments) then ill-health early retirement may be appropriate. Advice must be sought from Personnel Services before any further action is taken.

Help and advice

Occupational Health Service (OHS)

Referrals to the Occupational Health Service can be made by line manager using the OHS management referral form.  In order that appropriate support can be provided it is preferable that the referral is made by the department with the full involvement of the staff member, and preferably after seeking advice from Personnel Services.  Individuals may also self-refer to the OHS.

The Occupational Health Service can provide:

  • opinion regarding disability, its impact on the employee’s functional capacity at work, and its likely prognosis
  • advice to departments on possible reasonable adjustments that might assist the individual in work
  • information regarding the provision and purchase of commonly-used adaptive ergonomic equipment. A list of such equipment is available on the Occupational Health Service website at and some small computer-related equipment may be available to loan on a short-term trial basis. (For more specialist advice, for example, regarding screen readers, radio aids or minicoms referral should be made to the Staff Disability Advisor)

Disabled staff are entitled to absolute medical confidentiality, and an occupational health report will often not contain medical details.  However, in order that departments can give proper consideration to making adjustments,  staff who self-refer to OHS will be encouraged to give consent for relevant information to be shared with their department.

In some cases an Occupational Nurse Advisor will see the employee, undertake a workplace assessment, and advise the employee’s manager about any recommended workplace adaptations.

In more complex cases employees will see the Occupational Physician (OP) for a detailed medical functional assessment. With the employee’s consent, the OP may request a report from a specialist or from the employee’s GP. Medical reports from external sources may take some time to obtain. In case of delay the employee should contact his/her treating physician. The OHS may work with the Staff Disability Advisor to suggest interim adjustments where appropriate, and both services may liaise with the Oxfordshire Employment Service regarding more complex cases and undertake joint visits and case conferences.

The Staff Disability Advisor

The Staff Disability Advisor offers general on disability matters, including  adjustments to the work place (including assistive technology and other equipment).

The Staff Disability Advisor web pages provide guidance on reasonable adjustments and reasonable adjustments for mental ill-health as well as a range of resources and information.

Other sources of guidance in the University

The Oxford Learning Institute:

  • courses for managers on recruitment, equal opportunities, employee capability, conduct and absence management

Occupational Health Service publications:

  • Occupational Health Service publications (such as “Psychiatric Illness in the Workplace” (OHS M1/03))

University Safety Officers:

  • advice on fire safety and risk assessment