How can employers support workers with spinal injuries?

There has been slow progress in getting more disabled people into work, and those with spinal cord injuries have a particularly low employment rate. What can employers do to support them back to work, asks Alex Dabek?

In 2017, the government announced plans aimed to get one million more disabled people in work over the next 10 years after it emerged less than half working age people with disabilities (49.2%) were in employment in June 2017.

Yet, two years on, this figure has barely moved with the latest Office for National Statistics data showing just over half of people with disabilities (51.7%) are in work.

Those with spinal cord injuries have a particularly low employment rate. The National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital undertook a survey of 1,700 working age people and concluded that “after spinal cord injury, the employment rate decreased dramatically from 87% to 37%”.

The people included in the survey were also those who had access to specialist spinal cord (SCI) rehabilitation. Other studies suggest that employment rates are even lower for people with a spinal cord injury who have not had specialist SCI rehabilitation.

It is widely accepted that following a spinal cord injury people may struggle to return to employment.

Because of this, it is common practice for a compensation claim to include a loss of earnings claim, and/or the cost of the adaptations or assistance required to support a person with a spinal cord injury return to work. However, the majority of people with a spinal cord injury do not make a compensation claim.

Bolt Burdon Kemp’s recent survey of 500 SME owners found many don’t understand how to cater for disabled employees. But there are a number of things that employers can do to assist people return to work following a spinal cord injury.

Wheelchair accessibility and disabled toilet access

It is not enough for a wheelchair user to be able to access the place of employment – they must also have access to a wheelchair accessible toilet. Although many workplaces now have accessible toilets, these can be mistreated and frequently used by able-bodied people.

Sometimes people with a spinal cord injury don’t have a lot of notice before they need to use the facilities. Employers need to educate their able-bodied employees to be mindful of this and to not use the disabled toilet.

Access to the building

Be it by key pad, electronic pass or deadlock, security provision needs to be at a height that a wheelchair user can access independently. The same applies for light switches and the weight of the door; if it is too heavy consider whether it needs to be automatic.

Access to kitchen and other facilities

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.

Ensuring that a wheelchair user has the space to access all of the facilities is really important. This includes their desk and equipment such as printers, but also the kettle, microwave and sink, so work surfaces should be a suitable height.

Flexible working

Offering flexible working times can also assist a person with a spinal cord injury return to work. Their morning routine can take much longer than that of an able-bodied person.

This, plus the increased commute time, especially if they are using public transport, can make it very difficult to work the standard 9am to 5pm.

Flexing their hours or supporting working from home would help people feel more confident to return to work.

Work events

One of the benefits of being part of a positive work environment is also being able to socialise with colleagues outside of the office. When organising an event, an employer should make sure there is inclusivity and access. This includes the pub or restaurant chosen for a social event.

It’s common knowledge that working is good for our health and wellbeing. It helps to build confidence, self-worth and gives us a sense of identity. This is even more important to someone undergoing rehabilitation from a spinal cord injury.

If employers could make some small changes to make their workplaces accessible encourage as well as enable more people with a spinal cord injury to return to work.

By: Alex Dabek
Alex Dabek is a spinal injury lawyer at Bolt Burdon Kemp

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