Janine’s opening remarks at the TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference panel discussion on Accessibility As Standard Not ‘As Required’: building accessible workplaces for all, on Monday 21 March 2022.
Which is better?
A. A wheelchair user arrives at their new workplace, enters it and starts work.
B. A wheelchair user arrives at their new workplace and is told to request a reasonable adjustment so the company can source a ramp to place over the steps into the workplace.
A. All printed communications in a workplace are in dyslexia-friendly layout.
B. Printed communication is in a small, serif font, but dyslexic workers can request a special copy in larger, non-serif font.
A. In a multi-site company, all step edges are painted yellow to improve visibility.
B. A visually-impaired employee has an agreed reasonable adjustment that the stairs at any site she works at will have the step edges painted yellow after she starts working there.
I’m sure we will all agree that the As are best! This discussion is about challenging the culture of employers saying they will provide accessibility measures ‘as required’. We want them as standard!
The examples show why permanent workplace change is preferable to individual adjustments ‘as required’, because:
- it is much better for the disabled worker concerned: they don’t have to wait for the change they need and they don’t have to single themselves out
- it also improves access for other disabled workers who may not have spoken up because of fear, stigma, or not having a diagnosis
- it benefits future disabled workers – both disabled people who might work there in the future, and current non-disabled workers who may become disabled
- and in a lot of cases, it will make the workplace more comfortable and safer for everyone
Crucially, trade unions are all about collective demands, collective action, collective change – about not leaving people to fight alone.
To put it provocatively, there is no such thing as an individual case – only individual examples of collective issues. Union reps often see their work on disability as mainly about fighting for and winning reasonable adjustments for individual disabled workers. And that role is very important. But if we focus exclusively on reasonable adjustments for individuals, we will keep on getting case after case, not making overall progress.
To put it provocatively again, I urge our movement to start thinking of reasonable adjustments for individuals as Plan B. Individuals only need adjustments when the workplace is inaccessible to them. Plan A is an accessible workplace.
I want to mention two further concerns about the exclusive focus on reasonable adjustments.
Firstly, this narrow view has led some people to suggest things as reasonable adjustments which have no place being considered as adjustments. For example, bullying and harassment. The right to go to work and not be bullied or harassed is not a reasonable adjustment. It is a right for every worker.
Secondly, I am concerned that employers use reasonable adjustments for individuals as a pretext for not making jobs and workplaces accessible. This is an increasing concern, with more and more disabled people working from home as a reasonable adjustment. A lot of disabled people want to work from home, and it is important that they are entitled to do so. But given the chance, plenty of employers will say to disabled workers, “No, we won’t make this change that you want. If the workplace is not suitable for you, then you can work from home. That’s your reasonable adjustment.” But it’s not reasonable if you don’t want to work from home, if your home is not suitable to be worked from, if you don’t want to be isolated from your workmates. And it is not an excuse to keep workplaces inaccessible.
To finish, I want to tell you the story of how RMT came to take up the call for Accessibility as Standard, not ‘As Required’. I’m not telling this story to embarrass my union but because it is a good example of why disabled members’ structures are important in trade unions and how unions work best when they listen to them.
Our Disabled Members’ Advisory Committee drafted a charter of demands for accessible and non-discriminatory workplaces. Our National Executive amended our draft to add the words “as required” to our demands for accessible training and communications. We disagreed with that decision, and asked our Annual General Meeting to overturn it, which it did, using our union’s democratic structures. That got us thinking about the issue, and we debated and agreed a policy at our Disabled Members’ Conference that developed our view and took that to our union’s AGM where it was passed unanimously.
Through this process, we have come to understand the importance of demanding accessibility as standard, not “as required”, and we hope that our whole trade union movement will mobilise its considerable strength to fight for and win this.