Ask the panel

September 23, 2005

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I work as a secretary to a senior member of staff who has told me that she is moving offices next term to a room I will find difficult to access.

Although I have not officially told the university that I have a disability, it is obvious to everyone that I have a mobility problem. What should I do?

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "It doesn't matter that you haven't 'officially' told the university about your mobility impairment: you say it is obvious, which means your manager must know about it.

"According to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), that level of knowledge should have prompted her to ask you about your access and other requirements and to take them into account."

The panellist says that if you are protected by the Act, your employer has legal obligations towards you. "If your employer's premises place you at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to non-disabled people, then your employer has a duty to make 'reasonable adjustments' to enable you to access them," she says.

"The university's aim should be to enable you to stay in your post. It should consult with you to find the best way to achieve this.

"There are still steps it can take. It can review whether the room change is absolutely necessary," she says. "If it is, the university should then try to find an alternative accessible room for you to use, as close as possible to your manager. If the university maintains that the move must go ahead, then it must look into altering the new room to make it accessible to you and look into any other adjustments that you may require. The university may be able to get some financial help from Access to Work.

Discussing disability with your employer can be daunting - a staff or union representative or an equality officer may be able to provide moral support."

* The panellist from the Association of University Teachers says: "You need to discuss your requirements with your employer - your manager, human resources, an equality or access officer or, if you feel uncomfortable approaching the employer, your local trade union.

"If your mobility impairment constitutes a disability under the DDA, your employer has a duty to make 'reasonable adjustments'. Employees are not obliged to disclose a disability, although institutions are expected to take reasonable steps to find out which employees are disabled.

"Once a member of staff has disclosed a disability or if an institution might reasonably be expected to know (if the disability is visible), the institution has a responsibility not to discriminate."

* Our Natfhe panellist adds: "Even if you do not have the protection of the DDA, the university is likely to have its own policy, which should allow for the necessary provisions to be made to allow you to carry on your job. You might also want to bring the case to the notice of your university's disabled staff group.

"Under the DDA 2005, your university will have a duty from next year to consult with disabled staff, which in turn will require them to facilitate disabled staff groups.

"The DDA 2005 gives examples of reasonable adjustments the university must make, including those to physical premises. Since August, universities have had a duty to make premises accessible. They received £117 million in 2003 to improve the fabric of their buildings. Although primarily aimed at students, such changes should have benefited disabled staff.

"If no adjustment is offered, the university may be liable to a claim. Your union representative will be able to guide you through the process."

* The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist confirms: "Under the DDA, employers must ensure staff are not disadvantaged because of their disability and must make 'reasonable' adjustments to policies, practices or premises to meet disabled employees' needs.

"This duty falls on employers as soon as they are aware of an employee's disability and does not depend on you registering as disabled or formally telling the university."

He recommends the Disability Rights Commission helpline on 08457-622633 for objective advice.

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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