Commission starts task of improving career prospects with comprehensive survey of sector, writes Tony Tysome
The most comprehensive study into how many disabled staff there are in English and Welsh higher education and what challenges they face is to be conducted by a new commission backed by policymakers, union leaders and disability rights organisations.
The Commission of Disabled Staff in Lifelong Learning, officially launched last week and led by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, has already begun gathering evidence from disabled staff, university managers and human resources departments, training providers, professional and advocacy organisations and government.
According to Niace, early findings back up anecdotal accounts of discrimination against disabled staff, including academics who use wheelchairs who have been told by universities that they constitute a "health and safety hazard".
There is also evidence that disabled staff are being forced to take annual leave to attend hospital appointments.
The commission, which will produce an interim report on its findings in September, plans to make recommendations on ways to address such problems and how to improve the working lives and career prospects of disabled staff. It will also aim to highlight the achievements of disabled staff and the contribution they make to the sector.
Sian Davies, disability equality organiser for the University and College Union and a member of the commission, said one of the biggest challenges was working out why disabled staff apparently represent such a low proportion of higher education staff.
According to official figures, only about 2.5 per cent of higher education staff are disabled, compared with an estimated 20 per cent of the general population who have some form of disability.
One theory is that many disabled staff are reluctant to declare their disability for fear of being discriminated against by managers or colleagues.
Ms Davies said: "A lot of universities are saying that they do not know who all their disabled staff are. We are trying to work with them to create a culture and environment where staff feel confident to disclose their disability."
Another commission member, Niace health and disability equality team officer Christine Nightingale, said most institutions have so far focused more on the needs of students than staff in meeting the requirements of recent disability discrimination laws.
Martin Giddey, a senior lecturer in social policy at Portsmouth University who suffers from a hearing impairment, said this was reflected in the fact that most institutions had central resources to help disabled students but not to support staff.
"It means that if a disabled staff member needs special equipment such as an ergonomically designed chair, the money for it has to come out of a departmental budget. That can make departmental managers less inclined to take on disabled academics," he said.
Mr Giddey added that he personally faced difficulties almost every day, even though his institution had made special efforts to help him.
"I usually find that audio loop devices in lecture theatres are set up so that disabled students can hear the lecturer, but not the other way around.
It's the kind of problem I have all the time," he said.
To find out about the Commission of Disabled Staff in Lifelong Learning and to take part in its survey, visit www.niace.org.uk/commissionfordisabledstaff