There are two different models of disability:

  • The legal definition of disability fits into the medical model, looking at a person’s impairment and its impact on their ability to carry out every day activities. The medical model states that it is a person’s impairment that causes the disability, and medical approaches to disability look to ‘fix’ or ‘cure’ the disabled person.

  • The social model of disability views an impairment as the failure of society’s structure to accommodate for a disabled person’s needs.

The duty to make reasonable adjustments arises from the social model, as it is the responsibility of the employer to take steps to avoid creating barriers for disabled people


For example, a wheelchair user might be unable to access a training course hosted in a venue with steps and no ramp. An autistic employee may be unable to fully access training if provided in a venue with overwhelming sensory input (e.g. echoing acoustics, very bright light, strong smells etc.). In both of these examples, an employer might make reasonable adjustments by changing the location of the training to a more accessible environment—a venue with ramp access, or a venue with softer lighting and acoustics.

The distinction between the medical model and social model of disability is particularly useful for understanding autism as a disability. Many of the traits we consider to be ‘impairments’ caused by autism can be effectively minimised or avoided with relatively small changes to environments and workplace procedures. Keeping inclusion and accessibility in mind when planning new workplaces can help reduce the number of reasonable adjustments needed for individual disabled people. This approach is known as Universal Design.

The duty to make reasonable adjustments recognises that treating disabled people the same as non-disabled people will sometimes disadvantage disabled people. The Equality Act places a proactive legal duty on employers to do whatever is reasonable to avoid disadvantaging a disabled person in that way.

This legal duty arises if a disabled person would be disadvantaged by:

  • The way things are usually done (legally – a practice, criterion or provision operated by or for an employer)
  • The physical environment at work (legally – physical features)
  • The lack of something that would help (legally – auxiliary aids, which can include software, assistance dogs and support workers)

It is unlawful discrimination to fail to take a reasonable step to avoid disadvantaging autistic employees or (potential) job applicants in one of those three ways.

What is “reasonable” will depend on the circumstances of each case:

  • How effective the measure is in avoiding disadvantage
  • How practical the measure is
  • How much the measure would cost
    • Considering the size and resources of the employer
    • Considering any other financial help available

Sometimes it can take a number of steps working together to remove a disadvantage


Reasonable Adjustments and Universal Design

The 3 ways the reasonable adjustments duty applies are intended to cover the main areas where socially disabling barriers are experienced which can be summarised as HOW, WHERE & WHAT.

HOW we do things

WHERE we do them

WHAT we use

The social model of disability says that the HOW WHERE WHAT decisions we make can create or remove barriers to access and equal participation by disabled people. If the way employment is designed didn’t consider disability when the HOW WHERE WHAT decisions are made and remade, then there will be a greater need for reasonable adjustments in the future.


The principle of Universal Design says that we should try to build things for maximum accessibility so that the fewest number of reasonable adjustments for individuals would be needed


Universal Design in employment is creating a workplace that is inherently as accessible as possible to disabled people, meaning fewer reasonable adjustments are needed. Disabled people make up almost 20% of the population, Universal Design in employment is a key business efficiency.

Adopting a Universal Design approach to employment practice will reduce the need to make basic reasonable adjustments for individual disabled employees.


It is necessary to learn about each disabled person as an individual to ensure that every individual is able to work to their full potential and avoid discrimination