‘Legally Disabled?’: Redesigning the workplace to support disabled people

The brilliant ‘Legally Disabled?’ research by Prof Debbie Foster and Dr Natasha Hirst sheds light on the experience of disabled people working in law. Although the research focuses on the legal sector, its recommendations are useful for everyone. In this blog, we share some tips on how to make workplaces more inclusive.

  • Disability inclusion needs to be improved. The World Health Organisation estimates that over 1 billion people (around 15% of the world’s population) have a disability, yet disabled people are still underrepresented in the working world.
  • When organisations have a diverse range of employees that are representative of wider society, everyone benefits. Companies get new ideas and managers become better at adapting their communication to get the most out of their employees. Workplace culture improves, and people become more understanding of how many different and brilliant perspectives there are in the world.
  • In January 2020, the ‘Legally Disabled?’ report about the experiences of disabled people in the legal profession was published. The same team that published this report carried out a supplementary study over lockdown about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on disabled lawyers. This ground-breaking research found that employers have a long way to go in terms of representation, support, and empowerment for disabled employees, and that there are lessons we can all learn from lockdown.

We’ve put together some practical tips from the recent ‘Legally Disabled?’ COVID-19 survey, which your organisation can put into place when coming out of the pandemic:

  • Home working: Remote or home working was both the most requested and the most refused reasonable adjustment in the original research. This year has shown us how well home working can work, on a scale that no one had previously imagined. 70% of disabled people responding to the COVID-19 survey would prefer to have flexibility over where they work in future. All employers should collaborate with disabled employees to discuss what happens next. This could include offering home working or ‘hybrid’ roles (with some days in the office and some days at home) to all staff.
  • Flexible working: Offer flexible working to give people reasonable control over when, how, and where they work (which is different to home working). This can be very helpful for disabled people with conditions that fluctuate.
  • Reasonable adjustments: Have a clear policy for disabled people to disclose their disabilities and ask for reasonable adjustments (where needed). This applies to home working too – 20% of people responding to the latest survey asked for reasonable adjustments for the first time in lockdown. Consider whether you can use the Government’s scheme to put in place reasonable adjustments at the office and at home. An example of a reasonable adjustment would include providing equipment like an adapted keyboard for someone with arthritis.
  • Training: Invest in training to improve workplace culture. Training on disability inclusion awareness was the most requested adjustment by disabled people during lockdown, but it was often not provided.
  • Designated contact: Appoint a dedicated ‘disability officer’ to help make it easier for people to know how to disclose a disability.
  • Technology: We’ve all spent most of this year getting to grips with Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Using technology like this has been helpful for some disabled people but made things less accessible for others. Speak to your colleagues to find out what has or hasn’t worked for them. Then work with your technology provider or consider new programmes to increase accessibility.
  • Return to the office: Use this time to consider your office environment and how accessible it will be once it is re-opened. For example, ensure hand sanitisers are placed accessibly and consider using transparent masks to support people with hearing impairments who need to lip-read.

These are just some of the amazing tips from the ‘Legally Disabled?’ research. Our blog includes some practical tips from the research, rather than setting out the minimum standards required by law. We highly recommend that you read the full reports and get started!

At Bates Wells, we’re learning from this research as part of our journey to improve our workplace for disabled employees. We have set up a network in our firm dedicated to enhancing support and long-term empowerment for disabled people, people with caring responsibilities, and/or neurodiversity. This network is led by Lorraine Foreman, our Head Receptionist, and Katie Exell. Katie is a charity and social enterprise solicitor with a particular interest in advising charities and social enterprises that support people with disabilities or caring responsibilities. Please feel free to get in touch if we can help.


This information is necessarily of a general nature and doesn’t constitute legal advice. This is not a substitute for formal legal advice, given in the context of full information under an engagement with Bates Wells.

All content on this page is correct as of December 22, 2020.