What are my rights on returning to work after a spinal cord injury?

20 May 2021

According to the most recent NHS statistics 2,500 people are injured or diagnosed with a spinal cord injury every year. Indeed it is estimated  that there are a total of 50,000 people living in the UK with a spinal cord injury of some sort. Unfortunately sustaining a spinal cord injury impacts on every aspect of a person’s life. Often, where everyday tasks are a challenge, returning to work may seem unrealistic. The fact is that employment rates among people with spinal cord injuries remain much lower than the general population. So it is vitally important that those who have suffered spinal injuries are aware of the range of rights that may be available under the Equality Act 2010. Here are some of the most important for you to consider.

Reasonable adjustments
Under the Equality Act 2010, your employer has a legal obligation to consider making reasonable adjustments when:

  • they know, or could be expected to know, an employee or job applicant has a disability;
  • an employee or job applicant with a disability asks for adjustments;
  • an employee with a disability is having difficulty with any part of their job; or
  • an employee’s absence record, sickness record or delay in returning to work is because of or linked to their disability.

If you are returning to work after a spinal cord injury, and measures are not already in place, you may consider asking your employer about:

Access to the building

Whether access to the workplace is by electronic security pass, key pad or other means, the security provision must be at a height a wheelchair user can access independently. The weight of the door should also be considered; if it is too heavy your employer ought to consider whether it should be automatic. The width of doors in the building should also be considered; the standard width of internal doors in the UK is approximately 76.2cm, but where wheelchair access is required the door width should be 83.8cm.

 

Disabled toilet accessibility

As well as a wheelchair user being able to access the place of employment, they must also have access to a toilet that is accessible by wheelchair. Accessible toilets are becoming more commonplace. Unfortunately they may be frequently used by other employees, who must be educated by employers on the importance of not using the disabled toilets.

 

Access to facilities

A wheelchair user must have the space to enable access to all of the facilities in the workplace, for example all kitchen appliances, their desk and equipment such as scanners and printers. The positioning of light switches and lift buttons should also be taken into account by your employer.

 

Flexible working

Your employer can also assist your return to work by offering flexible working hours and allowing working from home; being able to avoid rush hour or even using public transport altogether may help you feel more confident and comfortable with returning to work.

 

Social events

Your employer should also make sure any work social events inside or outside the office are inclusive and that there is access for you, to enable you to get involved with every aspect of a positive work environment.

 

Discrimination
The Equality Act 2010 also protects those with disabilities, including spinal cord injuries, from discrimination. There are six main types of disability discrimination:

  1. Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination is when you are treated less favourably than another person in a similar situation because of your disability. For example, if you attended a job interview and informed the potential employer that you had sustained a spinal cord injury and they then decided not to hire you despite the fact you were the best candidate. They may have assumed that because of your condition you will need to take a lot of time off work. This may be a case of direct discrimination.

  1. Indirect discrimination

This occurs when an employer has a particular policy or way of working which impacts more on disabled people by comparison with those who are not disabled. Indirect discrimination is unlawful unless the employer is able to show that there is a good, proportionate reason for the policy (this is known as ‘objective justification’). For example, a job advert specifying that all applicants must have a valid driving licence would put some people with a disability at a disadvantage, but if the vacancy was for a role as a bus driver, the requirement will be capable of being justified.

  1. Failure to make reasonable adjustments

Please see above for more detail on the duty to make reasonable adjustments.

  1. Discrimination arising from disability

This is where you are treated badly because of something connected to your disability; for example in the case of a person with a spinal cord injury, not being recruited or being dismissed because of the need to take time off for medical appointments.

  1. Harassment

Harassment occurs when someone treats you in a way that makes you feel humiliated, offended or degraded. For example, if you are regularly verbally abused by your colleagues at work because of your disability.

  1. Victimisation

Victimisation is when you receive adverse treatment because you have made a complaint of discrimination under the Equality Act. It can also occur if you are supporting someone who has made a complaint of discrimination. For example, if you have made a complaint of disability discrimination and your employer threatens to dismiss you unless you withdraw the complaint, this would be victimisation.

 

The Equality Act 2010 protects against all of the above. If you think you have been the victim of discriminatory treatment of this kind, you should seek legal advice from a specialist employment lawyer.

Studies show that benefits of employment for people with spinal cord injuries include improved quality of life, enhanced independence, reduced depression, improved social integration, greater life satisfaction, better health, and longevity. Employers have legal duties under our equality legislation in respect of employees with disabilities and the onus is on them to create an inclusive and accessible workplace to encourage and enable more people with spinal cord injuries to make successful and beneficial returns to the working environment.

We have had comprehensive disability legislation in the UK for more than 25 years. There was slow take up at first, possibly through a lack of awareness at the time, but since then those who are disabled have been increasingly able to make use of the legislation to create better and more fulfilling lives for themselves. So if you, or someone you know, falls into this category, you should ensure you are fully aware of what the law may provide for you.

FURTHER INFORMATION

If you would like any further information or advice about the issues explored in this blog, please contact Richard Fox or a member of  our Employment team.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Richard Fox  is a partner within the Employment team.  Richard acts for corporates, organisations and senior individuals in relation to employment matters of all kinds.

Lucy is a trainee solicitor at Kingsley Napley. She is currently in her fourth seat in the employment team.

 

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