Why flexible workplaces are important for people with disabilities

Having a workplace culture which is flexible can help all workers with their wellbeing and people with a disability have the right to ask for flexibility to help them work.
But research is showing many don’t know about that right or how it might improve their situation.

Key points:

  • People with a disability have a right to ask for flexible work arrangements
  • Flexible work can help to improve wellbeing and allow people to better manage their disability
  • Employers cannot discriminate against people with a disability, including when considering a request for flexible work

Research from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission has been focussing on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on workers with disability.

The research, including a survey of 1500 people and follow-up interviews, has found employees with disabilities have felt more isolated, stressed, worried about their financial security and concerned about their mental health throughout the pandemic.

Almost half of the workers with disability who were surveyed needed to use their savings to get by.

In a threat to workplace equality, flexible working arrangements introduced during the pandemic were less likely to be approved for workers with a disability than for those without disability, even though people with a disability were more likely to ask for them.

Many people with a disability were not aware that they were able to ask their employer to change their working arrangements as long as they had been working for the same employer for more than a year.

But the research also found that workplaces with flexible arrangements as part of their regular model (regardless of the pandemic) were more likely to provide workers with a disability with better equality in their work environment and less discrimination.

Workers with disability were also more likely to have a positive experience of flexible work than workers without a disability.

In light of this research, here are some ideas about what workers with a disability and their employers can do to improve working arrangements.

What does a flexible workplace look like?

Flexible work can involve changing your hours; such as start, finish and break times, changing the way you work or changing the place where you work, like working from home.

It can help with work-life balance, parenting of children – particularly if they can’t go to school or childcare, spending more time with family, taking time to recover properly from illness or surgery and caring for family members who are sick or have a disability.

It can also improve productivity at work.

There are a range of ways work can be flexible, with the most common from the Victorian research being:

  • Taking leave when you need it

  • Going to personal appointments during work hours, then making up the time by working other hours

  • Working from home or working remotely

  • Choosing what days and times to work

Access improvements to the workplace are also part of being flexible and inclusive of employees with disability and can include ramps, accessible toilets or other supports.

What are your rights around workplace flexibility?

If you’re worried about asking for a flexible working arrangement, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

One in five people who took part in the Victorian Commission’s research wanted to ask their employer for flexible work but didn’t ask.

Almost a third of workers with disability did not know their employer is required by law to make adjustments for them.

It is important to remember if you want to ask for flexible work, it is within your rights as long as you have been working for the same employer for more than a year.

You may need to put your request in writing and it should include what changes you are asking for as well as the reasons why you are asking for changes.

Your flexible working arrangements may need to be negotiated with your employer so that they work for you and your organisation.

For example, you ask to start work at 10am on Mondays because you would like to go to regular appointments on that day but there are important work meetings on Mondays at 9am.

You and your employer talk about it and agree you can start at 10am on Tuesday mornings instead and you make your appointments for Tuesdays.

If you are refused, make sure it is for a legal reason – like the cost being too much for the business to afford.

If you think your employer refused you without a good reason you can go to the Fair Work Ombudsman.

A flexible work request planner is also available from the Victorian Commission to help you and can provide some information about the laws around discrimination.

The planner is in an interactive online chat format which can take the circumstances of your situation into consideration and includes the option of downloading information.

What are employers required to do for employees?

Employers must not discriminate against their workers, whether they have a disability or not, it is against the law.

This also means requests for flexible work arrangements must be responded to without discrimination and complaints about discrimination must be dealt with fairly.

A response to a request for flexible work must be given within 21 days and if the request is refused the response must include the reasons why.

More information about what employers can and can’t do around flexible working arrangements is available from the Government’sFair Work website.

Employers have a duty to take steps to prevent and address discrimination against a person with disability and also are required to make reasonable adjustments for workers with disabilities – such as having accessible toilets.

The cost of the adjustment is taken into account and if it is too expensive the adjustment might not be considered reasonable and the employers may be exempt from making it.

What else can workplaces do to be inclusive?

The Australian Government runs an Employment Assistance Fund which can be used to help finance work related modifications, equipment, Auslan services and other support services.

For example, it can pay for:

  • Physical adjustments to the workplace

  • Changes to work vehicles

  • Equipment for the workplace

  • Information and communication devices

  • Auslan interpretation

  • Disability awareness training

  • Mental health awareness and first aid training

The Fund is available for people with a disability who are about to start a job, are already working or are self employed, as well as people who need assistance to look for a job.

A free assessment of the workplace for assistance from the Fund is available through JobAccess.

The flexible work request planner also has information for employers as well as employees.

Do you have a flexible workplace that helps you to manage your disability? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:
Reasonable adjustments in the workplace
If and when to share details about your disability at work or during your job search
Job hunting tips: Finding work when living with a disability
Disability Action Plans – why your organisation needs one