Disabled dons fight sector's handicaps

June 18, 1999

Disabled academics are calling for an ombudsman to check higher education's "limitations" in dealing with disability and discrimination.

Four disabled scholars have taken their cases to the House of Commons' Education and Employment Select Committee, which is taking evidence for its inquiry, Opportunities for Disabled People.

In their submission to the committee, the academics list cases of alleged discrimination, claim that the sector is failing to conform to good practice, and call on the forthcoming Disability Rights Commission to initiate a review of disability rights in higher education.

The lobbying is led by Cedric Pugh, professor of urban and regional studies at Sheffield Hallam University, who has been in a long dispute with the university over his terms and conditions.

In a preliminary submission to the committee, Professor Pugh, who has the muscle-wasting disease dermatomyositis, claimed that he had been denied access to research funding and had been put on a salary and benefits package that was "deliberately and substantially below the norms for internationally significant scholars in British universities".

Sheffield Hallam denied discrimination, condemned Professor Pugh's submission as "partial and biased", and said that his terms and conditions did not reflect his disability. Professor Pugh said that Hallam was "no better, nor any worse" than other universities.

He has been joined in his campaign to shake up the sector by three colleagues. Robert Giddings, professor of media studies and communications, is engaged in a long-running dispute with Bournemouth University over alleged "retarded career advancement". He had poliomyeltis and now uses a wheelchair.

The campaigners have also highlighted the case of Joyce Field, a lecturer at the University of Hull who won Pounds 5,000 in damages from the university late last year when it removed her right to an electronic buggy, which she used following a disabling stroke.

The case of Claire Hobbs, a disabled lecturer at the College of Ripon and York St John, was used as an example of better practice. Dr Hobbs was able to "retain her rights to full-time employment" after the college rearranged teaching programmes and provided specialist equipment.

The academics argue that universities are uncertain about fledgling disability discrimination legislation. Universities must make "reasonable adjustment" to accommodate disabled staff, said Professor Pugh, but university managers "keep an eye on minimal legal requirements and adopt the view that a manager operating with discretion within legal advice is fulfilling the duties of bureaucratic corporatism".

Ministers are considering extending the students' disability allowance to part-time and postgraduate students.

George Mudie, minister for lifelong learning, has written to Coventry University students' union, confirming that ministers are due to make a decision on the extension of the fund, which is currently available only to help full-time undergraduates meet additional costs and expenses associated with disability.

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