Talking about disability at work
Nobody has to tell their employer – or potential employer – they're disabled. But when they do, the employer has a legal responsibility to support them.
Employers should do all they reasonably can to create an environment and recruitment process where people feel safe and comfortable to talk about disability. This can help towards:
- making sure disabled people get support and are not put at a disadvantage or treated less favourably
- recognising the benefits of an inclusive and diverse workforce that does not exclude disabled people
- recruiting and retaining staff who often have more resilience and problem-solving skills through developing ways of living with a disability
- avoiding situations where an employer does not know someone is disabled and just thinks they cannot do their job
- improving wellbeing and productivity for everyone
Who is considered to be disabled
Disability is a 'protected characteristic' covered by discrimination law (Equality Act 2010). The law sets out when someone is considered to be disabled and protected from disability discrimination, including harassment and victimisation.
When to talk about disability
By law, nobody has to tell their employer they're disabled. But someone should talk with their manager or potential employer if:
- they need support
- there's a health and safety risk to them or other people
- they feel that telling them now may prevent problems later
It's up to the person to decide when they want to tell their employer. Some people might choose to do this when something changes, for example their condition starts affecting them much more than it used to.
In some cases this may be the first time the employer realises the person has a disability. For example, if it's a hidden disability where the manager could not reasonably be expected to know the person is disabled.
When someone tells their employer or potential employer they're disabled, the employer has a legal responsibility to:
- support them, including making 'reasonable adjustments'
- protect them from disability discrimination, including harassment and victimisation
An employer has the same legal responsibility if they could reasonably be expected to know someone has a disability, even if the person has not told them.
Find out more about:
- how an employer should support disabled people – including making reasonable adjustments
- disability discrimination
When an employer can ask about a disability by law
An employer can ask a staff member or job applicant about their disability if they need the information to keep to the law. For example, to:
- prevent health and safety risks
- avoid disability discrimination
- monitor the number of disabled people in the organisation
Employers should ask if anyone needs reasonable adjustments for any part of the recruitment process. For example someone might need the application form in a different format, or wheelchair access for an interview.
Employers can ask job applicants to complete an equality and diversity monitoring form. If they do this, it must be anonymous and separate to the job application.
An employer can also ask health-related questions for these reasons:
- to find out if someone can do an 'intrinsic' (essential) part of the job – for example climb ladders and scaffolding
- to do health checks after offering someone a job, if it's a legal requirement for the job – for example an eye test to be a lorry driver
- to take 'positive action' to help a disadvantaged or under-represented group
- to meet an 'occupational requirement', if having a specific disability is essential for the job
Health checks must not discriminate. It's against the law for an employer to only ask disabled people to do a health check if it's an essential requirement for everyone who does the role.
Using the right language
Use appropriate language when talking about disability. Language can affect how people feel and cause distress.
Ableist language is not acceptable. This means language that’s inappropriate, offensive or negative towards disabled people, including things some might consider as 'banter' or jokes.
Be sensitive in the terms you use. Do not use words that are offensive or negative, for example handicapped, crippled or wheelchair-bound.
Other terms can depend on people's preferences and experiences. For example, individual people might prefer to say:
- "I'm disabled"
- "I have a disability"
- something different, for example "I'm deaf", "I'm autistic" or "I have cancer"
Employers should talk with disabled staff about how they feel about these terms and others. Language and preferences can also change over time.
For more advice, see inclusive language guidance on GOV.UK.
A trainer asks "does anyone have special needs?" during a course. This could make disabled people feel they're seen as a problem, and that the trainer has drawn unwanted attention to them. It's not appropriate to ask this.
The trainer should have asked before the course took place if anyone needs reasonable adjustments. This language moves the focus from the person to the things that could be disabling for them.
If someone uses inappropriate or offensive language
If a manager or colleague says something inappropriate or offensive, it might be enough for someone to explain how it makes them feel or why they would prefer different terms. It might be that the person who said it did not realise and is happy to learn.
Inappropriate, offensive or ableist language, however, can be disability discrimination.
Talking with someone about their disability
When someone's talking with their manager about their disability, the manager should take the lead from the disabled person. It's up to the disabled person how much they share.
The manager should:
- listen to the person
- try to understand how their disability affects them – for some people the effects may fluctuate or change at different times
- consider the person's specific situation – everyone is different
- not make assumptions about what someone can and cannot do
- talk with the person about the support they need
- ask before helping – some people might not want or need help
- ask how they would like their disability to be referred to or talked about
- understand they might have their own coping strategies and ways of managing their disability
Patience might be needed on both sides to help build the best working environment.
Managers and colleagues should also:
- communicate with someone directly rather than through a support worker, for example a sign language interpreter or job coach
- speak to the person in the same way as anyone else, unless they've asked people to communicate in a different way – if it's difficult to understand each other, ask if there's a way of communicating that works better for them
- not touch someone's mobility or assistance aids without their permission, for example their wheelchair, walker, cane or assistance dog – these are part of someone's personal space
- consider sitting down when talking for a longer time with someone using a wheelchair
If a disability is new
Be sensitive when talking with someone who's been diagnosed recently. They might:
- be struggling to come to terms with their diagnosis, as well as the effects of their condition or impairment
- experience a mental health issue
- be worried that people will treat them differently if they know they're disabled
- not feel ready to ask for support, or not know what they need yet
Have regular catch-ups to check:
- how the person is feeling
- what support they need – this might change over time
If someone's been diagnosed with a progressive condition (this means it will get worse over time), or a condition that's terminal or life-threatening, it may be particularly difficult or distressing to talk about.
Find out about:
An employer should keep someone's disability confidential, unless the person is happy for it to be shared.
If information is going to be shared, the disabled person should agree with their employer:
- what they want to share
- who to share it with
- whether they want to tell people themself or would like their employer to do it
It can be helpful to put in writing what's been agreed, for example in a letter or email.
When confidentiality might not be possible
Confidentiality is not always possible when there are obvious signs of a disability, for example if someone uses a wheelchair or has an assistance dog.
Keeping something confidential might be limited in other circumstances too, such as:
- if someone needs specific support – for example they need information presented in a certain way
- health and safety reasons – for example if someone cannot operate certain equipment
- people at work need to be aware – for example what to do if someone with epilepsy has a seizure
Sharing experiences with others
If someone is comfortable talking about how their disability affects them, they may want to tell other people at work. This may help to:
- increase people's understanding of disability
- create an open, inclusive and accessible work environment
Managers and colleagues might be curious and ask questions. It should always be the disabled person's choice who they tell and how much they share.
Some organisations may have more formal ways of sharing experiences, for example:
- as part of a staff induction programme
- through a group like a disability network