How much should a uni get to employ this man?

October 1, 1999

Disabled academics, who make up just 0.16 per cent of staff at universities, are demanding 'cash carrots' to combat discrimination.Phil Baty reports.

Life as a disabled academic is "abominable," says Claire Hobbs, lecturer in cultural studies at the College of Ripon and York St John, who uses a wheelchair. "Everyone seems to think universities are liberal institutions, but nothing could be further from the truth."

With the growth of disability studies as an academic discipline, universities have led the new thinking that has helped shape a shift in the way disabled people are perceived. Disability, academics such as Tom Shakespeare at the University of Leeds have argued, is not a physical condition but a social one - it is society that decides what kind of jobs people can and cannot do, what kind of education they should have, even what kind of sex lives are appropriate. Just as society defines what it means to be a woman or a black person, so society limits the roles disabled people can fill.

A more tolerant society would "construct" disability differently. But it seems that universities themselves, which should be in the forefront of such social change, are failing to practice what they preach.

Disabled people make up at least 10 per cent of the UK population. But a mere 0.16 per cent of academic staff are recorded as disabled. Out of an academic population of more than 120,000 there were just 208 academics registered disabled in 1998, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

"These figures are ludicrous," says Susan Maynard Campbell, chair of the Association of Disabled Professionals. "I only have anecdotal information on universities and I tend to hear just the bad stories, but I suspect that there are a lot more bad stories than good."

Ms Maynard Campbell campaigns for improvements across the professions, but has begun to target universities. "Nowhere is perfect," she says, "but higher education has a long way to go." "Universities," she adds, "resisted the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 because they thought it would be an attack on academic freedom. That was not a very good start."

Hobbs agrees: "There is a major gap between rhetoric and reality. Most universities mention equal opportunities in their mission statements, but an awful lot needs to be done."

Encouraged by the recent setting up of a disability rights task force, and with a disability rights commission announced in recent legislation, academics are gathering voice. Hobbs has joined forces with three other disabled academics to form a lobby group, and they have their first meeting with disability minister Margaret Hodge next week.

Cedric Pugh, professor of urban and regional studies at Sheffield Hallam University, is leading the campaign. He has the muscle wasting disease dermatomyositis and has been at loggerheads with his employers for years over his status. "Disability is the distant half-cousin of race and sex equality," he says. "In higher education, one could say there is institutional discrimination with race, gender and disability. But disability is the lowest priority. There is a blindness on the part of vice-chancellors and senior executives - they do not understand disability and they have made no attempt to do so."

Pugh believes that financial pressures are partly to blame. "Senior executives are motivated to minimise employee costs. One way of doing this is to hold back on promotions. High achievers among non-Caucasians, the disabled and women are getting lower salaries and status than those who achieve less. Where there is downsizing or restructuring, or where enrolment targets are in jeopardy, the first thing senior managers look at are the vulnerable - in their minds it is the disabled, regardless of their ability."

Universities, as providers of education, are, like colleges and schools, exempt from part three of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, which forbids discrimination against the disabled in the provision of "goods, facilities and services". This, with a nod towards academic freedom, means that universities have complete freedom over whether to admit a disabled student.

But universities are subject to the provisions of part two of the act - employment. This makes it unlawful for a university, as an employer, to discriminate against a disabled person in terms of staff appointments, terms and conditions, promotions, training and other benefits, or with regard to dismissal.

The main element of the employment law is that employers must make "reasonable adjustment" to accommodate disabled staff. These may include changing buildings to ensure a disabled employee is not disadvantaged, altering a disabled employee's working hours, allowing absences during working hours for treatment and acquiring or modifying equipment. But making allowances has its own problems.

"Making provision for 'reasonable adjustment' could be seen by some as a privilege," Pugh says, "but it is designed to create a level playing field. The picture that I have is that universities have been very slow to engage with the idea of discrimination and disability. I have encountered protracted delays, intransigence and obstructions."

Some disagree. Murray Clark, an academic in the same university as Pugh, is happy with the way his employers have dealt with his disability. "One of the reasons I chose academia after I broke my back in 1984 was becasue I thought it would be one of the least discriminatory environments to work in. I do not feel I have been discriminated against, in fact quite the opposite."

Clark has risen rapidly. He joined academia after a career in mining and was promoted from lecturer to principal lecturer and now to acting research leader for Hallam's change-management research centre in just three years.

But Pugh has a wealth of anecdotal evidence of unhappy disabled academics who are adamant their employers could be more serious about combating discrimination. "Universities have had since 1995 to engage with the legislation. This was leeway given deliberately to allow time to introduce procedures and policies. But many universities still do not have them."

So what can be done? Pugh and his colleagues have a clear action plan. They want:

* The forthcoming disability rights commission to set up a formal inquiry into discrimination in universities

* An ombudsman who can ensure justice in grievance procedures, which the group believes are "skewed against anyone making a complaint"

* Cash carrots -"We are looking at the recent policy research institute study on race (which recommended that universities be encouraged to recruit a certain proportion of black academics by a certain date with financial penalties for failure)," Pugh says. "We too are seeking targets to increase the proportions of disabled academics, with financial incentives."

Hobbs hesitantly agrees: "With disabled students, there are now financial incentives if universities recruit them. At the end of the day we need to do that for academics too - even if we would prefer the sea change that needs to take place to be based on ethics."

POOR PROCEDURES

John Holland, who is blind, and Dermot Sheils, who is disabled after a series of serious operations, had between them accumulated more than 20 years of senior management experience at Stratford-upon-Avon College when they were made redundant and marched off the premises last year.

Earlier this summer, the college made what is understood to be one of the largest out-of-court settlements in college history, just days before a landmark disability discrimination tribunal was due to be heard. The men, both vice-principals at the college, were supported by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the Association of College Managers and the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers.

The tribunal would have heard how the college principal, Nigel Briggs, decided to rationalise his senior management team, reducing four vice-principals' posts to two. But the tribunal would also have heard that Holland and Sheils were chosen for redundancy without being interviewed, and after the college ignored the usual procedures for senior post holders.

The human resources consultant who advised the college on its redundancy plan was later appointed without interview to the college's governing board and then to the special governors' committee, which recommended the dismissals. And it would have heard that one of the able-bodied vice-principals who kept his job was clerk to the governing board, contrary to rules governing the running of further education colleges.

Just days before they were dismissed, both men had received glowing reports from the Further Education Funding Council. The catering courses run by Mr Sheils had been judged to be "good", while Mr Holland's media and drama courses were said to be "outstanding".

SLOWED PROGRESS?

Bournemouth University has agreed to set up a governors' panel to examine claims by Bob Giddings that his disability led to "retarded career development".

Giddings, who is paralysed through polio, joined Bournemouth as a senior lecturer in communication studies in 1982. He was not given a readership until 1994, and finally won his professorship in 1996. He is seeking an increase in his salary, and compensation for being "held back".

Key to his argument is his claim that he was passed over for promotion several times in his career, and that he was deliberately excluded from entering his research in the research assessment exercise.

In 1986, he failed to reach the shortlist for a principal lecturer's post and claims the successful applicant was less-well qualified. Later in the same year, he was passed over for a readership.

In the early 1990s he was treated for depression after a series of disputes with senior managers about his right to criticise the way the university was run. Giddings believes these disputes were driven by disability discrimination.

During one disagreement, lecturers' union Natfhe accused the university of ignoring Giddings's right as an academic, under the law, to "put forward controversial or unpopular ideas". The university pointed out that he also had a duty to "promote the corporate policies of the university". The row led, says his line manager, to "a serious loss of mutual trust and confidence".

Giddings eventually won his chair in 1996, under new vice-chancellor, Gillian Slater.

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Sponsored