1.2% of profs... 11% of the UK workforce

July 14, 2000

For disabled academics facingdiscrimination, new figures in The THES speak for themselves. Helen Hague reports.

Eleven per cent of adults in work are disabled - but only 1.2 per cent of professors in British universities are. Just under half of universities have no disabled professors at all, according to statistics published exclusively by The THES this week.

The picture does not improve lower down the career structure either. Representation of disabled people among senior lecturers and researchers also stands at 1.2 per cent - 207 out of 17,812. But there is a caveat: 11.2 per cent of staff declined to declare whether or not they were disabled.

The bleak statistics will fuel moves to put disability firmly on universities' equality agenda, alongside concerns over lack of promotion for women and ethnic minority staff.

A spate of high-profile employment tribunals involving disaffected disabled academics is in train, and Pounds 500,000 a year is being set aside to redress inequalities in race, gender and disability. The Disability Discrimination Act, which makes it incumbent on universities to make "reasonable adjustments" for disabled staff, is already having an impact on the number of employment claims being lodged.

Last year, John Hollands and Dermot Shiels received substantial out-of-court settlements days before a tribunal was due to hear allegations that they had been improperly targeted for redundancy by Stratford-upon-Avon College.

The table, left, based on statistics given to The THES by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, reveals wide disparities between institutions. At Greenwich University 9.1 per cent of professorships are held by disabled people. Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of Sussex are among those institutions reporting no disabled academics at all.

Yet the number of students with disabilities studying at British universities is climbing. Now 4.1 per cent of students are known to be disabled - up from 3.7 per cent two years ago.

Sophie Corlett, policy director for higher education at Skill, the national bureau for students with disabilities, says that the lack of disabled academics in the higher echelons sends out all the wrong messages. "The absence of disabled staff militates against an atmosphere where disabled students feel welcome," she says.

Tom Shakespeare, who has achondroplasia, which leads to restricted growth, is director of the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institute at Newcastle University. He says his career has not been affected by his disability - he was formerly a research fellow at the University of Leeds.

"The problem is that very few disabled people get to university and an even smaller proportion get into a position where they might be able to be selected as academics," he says.

Support for gifted disabled pupils to do well at school and university will help build the critical mass, he argues. "We should make efforts to stop discrimination and ensure that universities are accessible in the broadest sense, recognising that people who use wheelchairs or have a visual impairment can be very good academics."

The Disability Research Unit at Leeds has done much to promote the view that disability is not a physical condition, but a social experience, whereby society limits the roles disabled people can perform.

Colin Barnes, now professor of disability studies at Leeds, and himself visually impaired, argues passionately that disability is a civil rights issue. Disabled people face social disadvantage on the basis of impairment - with 71 per cent living on benefits. He says the government's championing of "education, education, education" and lifelong learning is a "sham" because of the decision to make students pay an annual tuition fee of Pounds 1,000.

"What the government is actually doing is further disadvantaging those people at the bottom of the social hierarchy, saddling them with a Pounds 10,000 debt on leaving and with no guarantee of a job," says Barnes.

Conservatism and elitism are, he argues, entrenched in universities, and disabled students and academics risk losing out.

Barnes believes the Hesa figures underestimate the number of disabled academics. It is up to individuals to notify universities of their disability status. In the climate of short-term contracts and lack of job security, some simply keep quiet to avoid possible victimisation. At the DRU, two-thirds of postgraduate students declare themselves to be disabled. But, where the environment is not so nurturing, students can also be reluctant to tell universities they have a disability.

Three disabled academics who believe they have faced discrimination have formed a lobby group to press for change and publicise their cases.

Cedric Pugh from Sheffield Hallam, Claire Hobbs from the College of Ripon and York St John and Bob Giddings from Bournemouth want the Disability Rights Commission to set up a formal inquiry into discrimination in universities. They also want the government to hold out "cash carrots" to universities to raise the proportion of disabled academics, with recruitment targets linked to financial incentives for institutions and penalties for those who fall short. "Unless institutions that breach standard codes of practice or the law are penalised I don't see where the impetus for change will come from," says Hobbs.



At Wolverhampton, addressing the needs of deaf staff and students has become part of the university culture.

Wolverhampton, which has won government praise for encouraging more deaf students into higher education, has more than 70 such students on courses as well as four deaf academics. Five hundred people at the university can now sign and interpret.

The number of deaf students enrolling at the university's school of art and design rises each year as its reputation spreads. It is one of the few geared up to accommodate a deaf community.

Wolverhampton has won Pounds 200,000 funding from the Higher Education Innovations Fund to write a sign language glossary for art and design education and to launch an interactive website to promote positive role models.

The university's communications support unit offers practical help. It is staffed by six British sign language interpreters and many freelances, including students.

Deaf academics are equipped with textphones and vibrating pagers, alongside full access to interpreters to help them do their jobs.

John Hay, a senior lecturer in deaf studies, is profoundly deaf, but most of the students he teaches can hear.

The help available at Wolverhampton is, Hay says, a welcome contrast to the "virtually non-existent" support he had as a student in Edinburgh 30 years ago, when he had to rely on lecturers' handouts and notes on the blackboard.

"It is so much better for deaf students now," he says.

Hay works in the university's visual learning centre, where he teaches deaf history and bi-lingual culture and skills to students who are learning BSL. Many students will go on to jobs in social work.

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