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Workplace adjustments – what are they?

Brianne Turk

Everything you need to know about requesting workplace adjustments for disability in the workplace.

At some point during your working life, you may need to request a workplace adjustment.

Workplace adjustments, formerly known as reasonable adjustments, are adjustments to an organisational environment, process or practice that support you to carry out the tasks of your job in a way that minimises the impact of your disability.

Come again?!

Simply put, they’re work-related changes that accommodate your disability.

Examples might include changing the height of a desk to accommodate a wheelchair or requesting screen magnification software if you have a vision impairment. To request workplace adjustments you must show that you reasonably need these changes to carry out your role; they can’t just be changes that you want.

Utilising adjustments is beneficial for a number of reasons: they allow you to complete work duties in a way that is appropriate and safe, they maximise work productivity, and they provide a greater opportunity for equality at every stage of the employment process – from recruitment, to training and development, and through to promotion.

Workplace adjustments also boost job satisfaction and retention. If you’re someone who requires voice-activated software but you don’t request it, then your needs won’t be met, you won’t feel supported and the quality of your work will suffer. This will impact how much you enjoy your work as well as how long you remain in the role. Similarly, if you can’t do your job because you haven’t communicated the supports you need, your employer is likely to think you’re incompetent and terminate your contract.  

What do workplace adjustments look like?

Adjustments can be suggested by you, put forward by your employer, or raised by an independent body that conducts a workplace assessment. Examples might include:

  • Reallocating minor tasks associated with a role (not the essential duties of the role) such as public speaking or handling money.
  • Making modifications to physical spaces, such as building ramps or installing automatic doors.
  • Purchasing accessible equipment, including amplified phones for people with hearing impairments and recording devices for those who have difficulty writing.
  • Having all information presented in an accessible format, including larger font sizes for people with a vision impairment, interpreters or captioning for people with a hearing impairment, and other necessary supports such as hard copy documents, a reader etc.
  • Requesting flexible hours or additional breaks to manage pain, health appointments or other aspects of your disability.
  • Being given additional training or one-on-one support when new tasks are assigned.
  • Requesting to take a companion when meeting new people.
  • Having a permanent, quiet workspace – not ‘hot-desking’ – to assist with the impact of autism.

What criteria needs to be met?

Workplace adjustments take into account the impact of disability on your work duties, and the individual circumstances of your employer. Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, employers are obligated to provide workplace adjustments that are deemed ‘reasonable’ and that do not result in ‘unjustifiable hardship’ for the employer.

When determining whether a suggestion is reasonable, it’s worth considering how effectively the adjustment will help you to carry out a role and which particular aspects of the role require adjustments. For example, one or two adjustments that impact your capacity to complete 90% of the role will likely be deemed more reasonable than four costly adjustments required to complete a single task that makes up 5% of the role. In the latter example, this task might be better reassigned to another staff member.

Other factors to be considered include the size and resources of the business, how much an adjustment might cost, whether there is financial assistance available to cover these costs and any disruption such adjustments – particularly modifications – might cause to the overall operations of the business. The Employment Assistance Fund is a great place to turn to help employers cover such costs. This fund will reimburse employers for costs associated with modifying workplaces and vehicles, providing disability awareness training to staff, the purchase of accessible equipment and software, and more.

How is this determined?

Each case is dependent on the individual circumstances of the employee and their employer.  

Suggested adjustments that might produce unjustifiable hardship include modifications to buildings which cannot be met due to council regulations or extreme financial cost, or adjustments that make a practice or environment unfair or unsafe for other staff.

JobAccess, a government initiative that we’ve written about here, also provides free workplace assessments to help you through this journey. They will have a discussion with you about your situation and work duties, review your work environment and provide adjustment recommendations. Typically, this review is mandatory if the employer wants to use the Employment Assistance Fund to cover costs of over $1000.

It’s worth noting that not all businesses are able to meet all workplace adjustment requests. If you find yourself in a dispute about whether a request is reasonable, you can gain support and advice from JobAccess or The Australian Network on Disability.   

Will adjustments make me look bad?

Understandably, a lot of people are concerned that by putting forward workplace adjustments, they will make themselves look like a ‘difficult’ employee or that they are incapable of carrying out a role. While this is a natural concern, discussions with employers tell us that most employers prefer individuals to be upfront and transparent about their needs and to do so as early as possible. As mentioned in our articles on self awareness and disclosure, employers respect individuals who are aware of their needs, confident in their capacity to manage a role, and who put forward solutions. If you’re reasonable in your requests you won’t be putting yourself at a disadvantage.

It’s also important to remember that regardless of ability, most employees require accommodations of some kind: flexible hours to pick kids up from school or extra training each time computer systems are updated. Some staff require work from home arrangements, and others require an extra round of proofing before their work gets circulated. Accommodations are a normal part of work contracts.

When should I request adjustments?   

This one is up to you. Sometimes you won’t know what adjustments you’ll need until you get started, and new adjustments can arise as the role evolves. If this is the case, let your employer know that you might need to revisit this conversation down the track.

If you’re already aware of the workplace adjustments you need, it’s reasonable to note these in your application or raise them at your interview. Discussing adjustments at interviews is always recommended. This is where you get a sense of the employer’s situation and whether your adjustments can be reasonably accommodated.

If you feel that your disability disadvantages you in the recruitment process you can also request an alternate method of recruitment, including accessible application forms, a phone interview, a test, an interview conducted in a different location or a trial period. For such requests to be granted, you must explain how the employer’s proposed process disadvantages you due to the impact of your disability.

For more information on your employment rights head to our article about disability rights in the workplace.