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View from my wheelchair: Negotiating workplace reasonable adjustments

The goal of a good people manager is to provide the right circumstances so that every person that works for them can provide their best work in a safe environment.

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community Sarah Shaw

I'm one of the many people with a muscle wasting condition that hasn't quite got a name yet or official diagnosis, I live with my wife and Friday our furry companion. I first started to notice changes in my body in 2008 so I have been living with this degenerative condition for more than a decade now. I have used a wheelchair as my mode of getting around since 2014. I love getting out and about in the community and am interested in Theatre, Music and the Arts. I also keep an eagle eye on what is happening in current affairs across the country. I worked in the Federal Public Service for twenty-six years and retired due to invalidity about two years ago.

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Much is made of the fact that people who live with a disability may need workplace adjustments to be able to perform the tasks required optimally. As a person who has led many teams over the years, I can attest that the idea that workplaces are one size fits all for anybody is misguided. The reality is that everybody is different and good managers should be aware that it is in the interests of the organisation that people’s needs are accommodated optimally, where possible, to improve performance overall.

Employees spend the bulk of their time at work and although employers have to meet Australian standards for working conditions, hard-won over time, the reality is that these standards don’t meet every individual’s circumstances. Things that impact routinely are lighting settings, floor temperature (too hot, too cold), break times, working hours, noise levels, furniture, software and equipment needs for specific conditions. Everybody has conversations with their boss about these things at some point in their working life, negotiations happen all the time. As a person living with a disability naming up what you need to work effectively should be viewed by you and the organisation as no different to any other need. In the long term not naming up your needs is not only a disservice to yourself but the organisation for which you work.

Having conversations about what reasonable adjustments are required can be scary though and let’s face it the world of work is not populated with only good people managers. So, what can you do to prepare yourself for these conversations?

Firstly, know your rights. Meeting requests for reasonable adjustments in the workplace is actually a legislated requirement for businesses. Whilst there are some exclusions from this requirement where the request would cause unjustifiable hardship, most requests should be considered and met where possible. The Australian Human Rights Commission has more information about this.

Secondly, be aware that there is Federal Government assistance for businesses to meet the costs of making reasonable adjustments. This includes the provision of Occupational Therapists to assess the workplace and recommend changes required. This program is called JobAccess and the website has a lot of great information for both employee and employer.

Thirdly, know what sorts of things you can request and what sorts of requests are not a reasonable adjustment. For example, if you are employed in a call centre it would be a reasonable adjustment to request a lighter wireless headset or air pods if you had neck muscle weakness as opposed to a standard bulkier heavier traditional headset. It might also include working a split shift so that you have a break in your workday to give your neck muscles a break if the company’s hours of operation would allow for this to occur. It would not be a reasonable adjustment to request that you did not have to answer phone calls if that was your primary job.

Fourthly, most organisations of any size will have documented human resource policies relating to accessibility and disability, look them up and know them.

Fifthly, know your workplace, your job and yourself. You are the expert in this conversation. You know what the organisation needs you to do and you know yourself. Prepare for the conversation ready to make suggestions and solutions if you have them. Ensure that the solutions meet the objective the you need met and that is to perform your job to the very best you can do. For example, lots of companies are moving to more flexible working arrangements and letting staff work from home. This may be a perfect solution for you but not if you are the type of person who is easily distracted or needs other people around them to work optimally. Each solution will not meet everyone’s needs.

Lastly, be prepared to need to document your requirements. The employer may request access to a report from an occupational therapist or a doctor’s report to verify the requirements you have set out are related to your disability. Before you supply them make sure they meet the following criteria – they are written in plain English as much as possible and they do not provide information that denotes you are not able to perform the duties for which you are employed. I have had experiences where doctors supplying evidence have actually provided information that indicated that even with adjustments made the person was not actually suitable for the position. This is difficult to walk back once supplied.

Consider joining your Union who can also provide assistance and support in negotiating these conversations. Do make sure though that the person who assists has some level of understanding of the process. Not all Union officials are created equal or have the same level of experience. Don’t be afraid to ask to speak to someone with explicit experience in this type of case.

Remember your employer is not doing you a favour, you are not asking for special treatment. You like any other employee in that organisation deserve to be able to perform your job safely and to the best of your ability. Not just for your sake but for the organisation’s benefit.

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