Ask the panel

July 20, 2007

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

'I am line manager of a small team of support staff. Recently, a long-standing member told me she has become partially sighted and is finding it difficult to keep up with work. The department head has told me our budget can't stretch to any new equipment. There is no support department for disabled staff. What I can do to ensure she gets the support she needs?'

* A spokesperson for the Equality Challenge Unit says: "The university has a duty to make 'reasonable adjustments' to ensure that disabled staff are not disadvantaged for reasons relating to their disability. Although there is no definitive definition of what is reasonable, it is likely that reasonable adjustments could include changes to the working environment and working practices of your colleague. So, for example, as her line manager, you may be able to reallocate some of the tasks that are taking her longer due to her visual impairment.

"You are right that there may be some technology available that could help your colleague perform her work, but it is important that your colleague is involved in deciding what would be best for her. Try calling the Royal National Institute of Blind People's Employment Line on 0870 013 9556; they can advise about reasonable adjustments and equipment for people with visual impairments.

"As for funding, although an institution can state it is not making a reasonable adjustment due to cost, any tribunal would consider the merits of this statement in light of the overall university budget, and not just the departmental one. Your manager may have a sincere worry about his or her funding, but this cannot be used to deny reasonable adjustments out of hand.

"There may also be external funding available to pay towards the support or equipment needed by your colleague. Access to Work is a government-run scheme that aims to do just this. Find out more about the scheme at www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk/JCP/ Customers/HelpForDisabledPeople/ AccesstoWork/

Although Access to Work can provide funding, your organisation may also be expected to contribute. If your line manager is not willing to discuss this with you, then perhaps you could go directly to the equality and diversity officer at your institution for advice. Your union rep may also be able to provide advice and support in negotiating with the institution."

* A spokesperson for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association says: "Start by asking your member of staff to attend an appointment with your institution's occupational health adviser, who will have the expertise to make a professional assessment of her condition and to recommend the type of reasonable adjustments that may be most helpful to her. There may be adjustments that could be made at a minimal cost, such as reallocating existing tasks between team members or identifying an alternative role for the individual. You must discuss the suitability of any adjustments you intend to make with your member of staff before you introduce any changes."

* Professor Gill Evans, project leader of Improving Dispute Resolution ( www.staffs.ac.uk/idr ) says: "Ask her whether she is willing for you to discuss her disability with the university and whether she can provide a letter from a medical specialist describing her condition and the prognosis. She could ask the writer to give guidance about the technical help available.

"Be careful to respect her wishes but explain that unless she gives permission for the university to know about her disability it will not be obliged to make reasonable adjustments.

"If she is willing, contact the student support department to see what equipment they have. Sometimes equipment bought to help a particular individual lies unused until someone else needs it. Support should not be restricted to students, and it can make sense for a disability officer to act as a specialist adviser and consultant to both students and staff."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, Research Councils UK 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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