Millie, can you tell me a bit about your role in Fieldfisher and the work that you do outside of your job?
I'm the Head of Just Purpose at Fieldfisher, which means I lead our corporate responsibility and sustainability initiatives across the firm. Alongside this, I founded the disability network called Discover at Fieldfisher. The aims of this network are four-fold: to educate, to support, to remove barriers, and to increase disability outreach. My work in this area has been entirely led by my experience as a disabled person. I am a wheelchair user and the barriers that I have come across in my daily life have certainly spurred me to want to implement systemic change in society. Beyond my role at Fieldfisher, I am a Trustee and Director of the NeuroMuscular Centre and I offer practical advice to fellow disabled people on matters such as financial support, wellbeing, education, employment, housing and more.
Can you tell me the purpose behind the Access to Work Scheme and who runs it?
Access to Work is a government scheme that provides financial support to enable a disabled person to stay in work. It's something that I have accessed before and it has enabled me to start work. Disabled people are eligible to apply as individuals and the scheme can help someone to get equipment installed in their workplace, or it can be used to cover the costs of support workers, job coaches, taxis to work, and more. In many ways, it acts as a grant for disabled people and can help pay for practical workplace adaptions, support with managing your mental health at work, and/or money to pay for communication support at job interviews. As I said, it is run by the government but it is not means-tested and will not affect other benefits, nor will you have to pay it back (regardless of your earnings). Importantly, this scheme does not replace the legal responsibility your employer has to make reasonable adjustments to support you to do your job. The purpose is simple. It costs a lot to be disabled so this scheme is one way to mitigate these additional costs.
How long does it take the Access to Work Scheme to process an application?
This varies a lot. It depends on the individual's needs and what support they require. It can be a lengthy process as you will need to obtain quotes for certain things and it can take a while to find suitable providers of support workers, for example. It also depends on the type of equipment you may need, like a bespoke custom-built wheelchair, so production can take a while. Unfortunately, recent news articles have alluded to the fact that waiting times have doubled. Those waiting times can vary from weeks to months. In 2022, over 20,000 disabled people were waiting for a decision compared with less than 5,000 in 2021. Despite the backlogs, in my experience, the scheme involves a far less arduous application than other disability benefits.
Is the application process a complex one?
The application process is a simple one. You submit a short form detailing your workplace information, your role, your disability and its impact on your work, and your access needs. You will then be contacted directly by someone from Access to Work (within a few weeks), who may ask for more information on your work and your condition. They will often seek permission to speak with your employer and may arrange for an assessor to see you in your workplace to find out what changes might help. Quotes for equipment/support workers/taxis will need to be obtained and submitted. From there, there will be a wait for the decision, which will be confirmed in a letter details of your grant and what it can be used for. It is important to note that there can be an obligation on the employer to contribute towards the cost of workplace changes too, although this varies depending on the size and turnover of the employer. There is also a cap on the grants (around £60,000) per year.
Do you think employers are aware of the Scheme and are they obliged to use it?
No, I genuinely believe there is a complete lack of awareness of Access to Work. I think more can be done to upskill HR professionals in what support is available and that is something that we are now prioritising at the firm by working with disabled consultants and experts to change our processes and policies.
Because Access to Work is a grant that an individual applies for themselves, once their application is submitted and approved, there is an obligation on the employer to implement the changes. It can all get a little complex with who pays for what etc but Access to Work are fairly good at communicating with the employer to ensure things run smoothly. One of the reasons I think employers lack awareness of the scheme is because it is the disabled person themselves that has to apply for the grant, not the employer. So a lot of information and awareness gets lost because of this.
Does the Scheme offer the latest equipment and technology?
Yes, absolutely. To give you an example, I applied to Access to Work for financial support to purchase my wheelchair. Without my wheelchair, I cannot work in any way, shape, or form. So, Access to Work were able to contribute 5/7 of the costs because I work full-time 5 days a week. Fieldfisher contributed to that proportion as well. Importantly, I have very specific needs when it comes to finding a suitable wheelchair. In other words, I need something that is bespoke and utilises the latest technology. The beauty of Access to Work is that it is very individualised. So, if you can demonstrate why the latest equipment and technology is the only thing that can meet your needs, you will be able to get the latest equipment and technology.
How do you think the Scheme could be improved?
It can be slow and it can be confusing when you have to obtain three different quotes for things. This is especially challenging when there can sometimes be only one provider of a certain piece of equipment or a certain style of support worker. For me, that was the most frustrating part – quote finding. Clearly, I think it needs to be a quicker process as it can delay someone's start date if changes and grants aren’t finalised on time. I also think it's a big burden to place on an individual to apply for grant funding for workplace adjustments.
Are there other initiatives employers need to be aware of when trying to assist individuals who may need additional equipment to carry out their role productively.
All employers are legally required to put in place reasonable adjustments for disabled people as per the Equality Act 2010. Crucially, employers need to be more aware of this obligation and actively seek out disabled consultants and experts to advise on best practice workplace adjustment policies and procedures. Too often, someone will start a new job and reasonable adjustments haven’t been implemented yet. No one wins in this situation. Employers need to proactively put adjustments in place – dare I say it, before they know someone needs it! Anticipatory approaches to workplace inclusion is crucial. There are plenty of organisations out there that can help with this.
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