Ask the panel

May 26, 2006

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

I work as a head porter at a university. When I first joined, I had slight hearing loss. Increasingly, I need to lip read. The university has introduced a face-to-face registration scheme for students, which I oversee. More and more, I have to deal with Muslim students wearing veils.

I find it difficult to hear what they say and feel that my boss will think that I am being difficult or offensive. What can I do?

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "Although you may not describe yourself as a disabled person, the extent of your hearing impairment means that you are likely to be protected under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA). The university has a duty to make 'reasonable adjustments' so that you are not at a disadvantage.

"This process should involve discussion with you about what steps could be taken to keep your work manageable. For example, do you have access to the most appropriate assistive technology? The university's occupational health provider may be able to help.

"However, adjustments can be made only if the relevant staff know about your hearing impairment. Some staff find that work culture makes it difficult to disclose an impairment, and there is evidence of significant under-disclosure of disability in the higher education sector.

"Bear in mind that your case will be strengthened further by the new 'disability equality duty', which lays an obligation on universities and colleges to promote disability equality, outlaw discrimination and promote positive attitudes towards disabled people. For some, that will mean building a culture where disabled people feel confident about exercising their right to request reasonable adjustments to their work environment.

Every institution will have to write its first disability equality scheme by December, which will demonstrate how it intends to fulfil this new duty.

"If you are having difficulty communicating with students who wear veils, we recommend that you speak to your line manager about the reasonable adjustments that can be made.

"While the forthcoming duty in disability means that overall legal protection will be stronger than that of religion and belief, institutions should take care not to adopt approaches that could lead to discrimination in other areas. Rather, it is recommended that mutually satisfactory solutions are worked towards."

* Our panellist from Natfhe agrees: "If your hearing impairment is so considerable that you need to lip-read, it is very likely that you will be covered by the DDA.

"My advice is to make an appointment with the appropriate person in human resources and take a union representative with you if you wish. Declare that you have significant hearing impairment, which you think means you are covered by the DDA and ask for a joint exploration of what reasonable adjustments the university can make.

"In relation to the particular issue you raise, one obvious adjustment is that you are never left alone to register students - you should always have a colleague with you. This must surely be good practice anyway."

* Our panellist from the Association of University Teachers gives further advice: "Once your employer is aware of your hearing loss, they have certain obligations to enable you to carry out your job. This includes providing support - for example a lip speaker - where appropriate.

Suitable adjustments and support should be discussed with you, but the employer can also access advice and financial support through the access to work scheme.

"The employer should be aware of this scheme, but further advice can be sought from the disability employment adviser at your local JobCentre Plus. If you require support or believe that your employer is not treating you fairly, please seek advice from your local trade union."

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.

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