Inclusion is within everyone’s ability: The reality of disability at TUoS
In advance of Disability History Month, which begins today and will run through to December 22, UCU’s Disabled Members’ Standing Committee organised a national day of action for disability equality in education yesterday. As part of this day of action, Sheffield UCU member Themesa Neckles, who is also a national representative on the Disabled Members’ Standing Committee and the USS Dispute Committee, was part of a UCU delegation that took several demands to Parliament, including: a statutory right to disability leave; placing time limits on how long our employer can take to implement reasonable adjustments; reviewing buildings and outdoor spaces to make sure they are accessible to disabled staff and students; and a reversal of cuts to SEND provision.
Higher education systematically disadvantages students and scholars with disabilities, and as a branch, SUCU must ask how we can make our union more inclusive to our members both locally and nationally, and how we can organise against the discrimination faced by disabled staff and students at TUoS. This will require concerted work over the years to come, at a personal, department, and university wide level. We offer our enormous thanks to a group of members who have developed this pamphlet for all SUCU members, including crucial information on the legal rights of disabled employees, the barriers members and students may face to disability disclosure, and links to a host of detailed resources on how to support members with disabilities and promote disability advocacy. We hope all of you will read it, and the resources it contains. If the embedded links within the PDF do not work for you, we have included them at the end of this post as well.
Five of our members have also written about their experiences, to raise awareness of the conditions here at Sheffield. Each of these stories have been anonymised, and we are very grateful to our members for sharing them.
-SUCU Branch Committee
My disability doesn’t have ‘a look’
I am dyslexic and have other impairments. I have always been praised for my excellent work. It’s been a year now that I’ve been asking for some reasonable adjustments to be put in place to support my teaching and to enable me to work more effectively. The adjustments are considered necessary and have been approved through Access to Work. However, my employer does not think it’s necessary to fund the equipment, although Access to Work provides more than half the cost. The employer cites lack of money, and the excellent work I already do without having any adjustments as reasons for not fulfilling their duty of care.
“I struggle every day to do my work well without the equipment and software that I need. It is stressful and it upsets me that I work so hard but don’t get any support. I am thinking of leaving.”
Don’t take my disability for weakness
Alexander’s condition significantly impacted his day-to-day activities and he struggles to manage in any open plan work environment and wide open spaces because it is visually disruptive and noisy. Three years ago, medical specialists recommended that Alexander access assistive software to enable him to do his work. Negotiating for reasonable adjustments was extremely difficult and Alexander was referred to occupational health on at least 4 occasions, with reports clearly stating that due to Alexander’s visual impairment he will require additional time to complete some aspects of his work and he is unable to complete his work at the same speed as other colleagues. If additional time cannot be accommodated, then an adjustment to his workload will enable him to complete his work in the required time. Alexander was informed by his employer in the first instance that he should make use of the university’s free assistive software, which is in place for dyslexic students. Due to its limited functionality, the software was not appropriate. Approximately 6 months later, it was agreed that a more appropriate software should be sourced to enable him to do his work. The software was put in place but without any consideration that it would take longer to complete most tasks.
In the first instance, his employer took 3 months to agree and purchase appropriate assistive software and then a further 2 months to purchase this software. Secondly, due to the nature of teaching and learning in HE, once the assistive software was in place the employer did not give him extra time to complete his work but asked that he managed his health in order to manage a full workload. Thirdly, instead of trying to relocate Alexander to a separate space on his own to enable him to do his work, the employer insisted that he worked in the open plan environment so he could get used to the space without considering that listening to text and dictating text is not possible in an open plan environment. However, to assist this integration, it was agreed that Alexander could have a flexible work pattern, noise cancellation headphones and a work station located in one corner of the open plan space, but with no provision to utilise text-to-speech software in a contained manner. Alexander attempted to manage the situation by getting to work for 6am, working until colleagues arrived at work. He would leave, returning late in the evening after his colleagues left (5 pm or 6 pm) to continue working. This action increased Alexander’s stress levels and further exacerbated his symptoms and condition. During this period Alexander was constantly reminded that his workload was under 100% although his medical reports indicated that he is fit for work and to continue in his current role, manage a full workload and offer a reliable service as long as the appropriate reasonable adjustments are put in place.
On a number of occasions, Alexander had to rely on a swivel chair and the wall to navigate his way to and from his space and when this was not an option, on the kindness of colleagues to escort him around the space, including getting to and from the kitchen and toilet. The process of managing the situation caused further distress and stress and things appeared worse for Alexander because his work pattern was beginning to disrupt his recovery and rehabilitation. The employer felt hard pressed to consider making changes to overcome barriers created by the physical features of a workplace; providing auxiliary aid and service. Alexander was eventually offered the use of a shared quiet room for whenever he wanted to use the assistive software without disturbing other colleagues. This meant managing two workspaces and without assistive software in the quiet room. A few months into his struggle for reasonable adjustments, Alexander decided to seek assistance from a colleague who works with the Equalities Challenge Unit before formally writing to his employers and then immediately requested support from UCU. He was assigned a case worker and a partial resolution was reached although the employer argued that any provision must be weighed up against factors such as cost, resources and practicality. Alexander was allowed to have an alternative room, which was appropriate and accessible without assistance but he was still expected to find ways to integrate and adapt to the open plan environment.
After some time, it was agreed that Alexander would occupy this room permanently. However, to date the reasonable adjustment remains incomplete as he still has not been able to successfully negotiate for extra time for doing some aspects of his work. Despite informing his employer of the length of time it takes to complete aspects of his work due to the assistive software, his employer has refused to give him extra time or an appropriately adjusted workload. Alexander still has a case worker and has been asked again to account for the amount of time it takes him to complete aspects of his work. He still waits for his ‘reasonable’ adjustment to be complete; three years and counting. He feels frustrated, angry and mentally stressed on a daily basis.
“Disability isn’t a choice; discrimination is. No one should suffer in silence and I hope my story and the lived experiences of others help to raise awareness to the issues and challenges faced by disabled people who fight to stay in work.”
My abilities speak louder than my disability
A teacher with severe visual impairment had been asking for an assessment for support for several years before the UCU took up his case. They had managed to stay in work only because colleagues helped them every day to read documents and their partner typed up most worksheets or checked and corrected for them what they had touch typed. They used a magnifying glass to mark work. The informal work of colleagues and family members allowed the visually impaired teacher, much respected by students, to stay in work.
Their work became exhausting because things took so much longer and caused increased eye strain.
UCU put the teacher in touch with Access to Work and ensured that the employer allowed access for assessment. However, nine months after the assessment the worker still had no equipment in place and was told that there was no budget available for reasonable adjustments but that they would be given equipment as soon as money was available. Intervention from a UCU rep and threat of further action finally ended the delays.
“It was wonderful to be able to do things myself again. I could not stand the situation I was in, but I could not afford to leave my job. I had been suffering for years because although people knew I was disabled, there was no proactive assessment and even when the union helped me get assessment—my needs were spelled out officially as it were—I still didn’t get anything until legal action was threatened. The law needs to be much stronger and must faster to give us our rights”.
Not every disability is visible
I am Megan, a 4th year PhD student but in my 5th year of study at the TUoS. I am also in my second year working as a tutor on one of the postgraduate programmes. I have epilepsy which means I have different types of seizures. Sometimes the seizures are really obvious and can look quite scary but most of the time I have unnoticeable seizures. Because most of my seizures are unnoticeable it seems that my needs are too. I have to constantly remind colleagues and staff about accessibility issues when organising meeting or conferences as most of the buildings at the university, including the study spaces like the IC and the Diamond are inaccessible to me because of the lighting fixtures that are used in these ‘new – state of the arts’ buildings. Having to remind people about inclusion is highly frustrating. Just as people see me as normal they often expect that I can keep up with the other ‘normal’ people when I often can’t. My unnoticeable seizures make it difficult for me to think or speak coherently never mind write. This often leads to me feeling disappointment and sometimes let down. While I have an appropriate learning support plan in place for study my employer has sent me to occupational health for a ‘fit to work’ assessment, so that suggestions could be made on what reasonable adjustments need to be in place for me to do my work. Although this was noted on my report, my employer has not taken into consideration that or recognises the amount of extra time and effort it takes me to complete tasks which my peers would complete more easily. Having SpLDs such as dyslexia and dyscalculia add to my already complex condition I do not always feel support and so this means that it is often easier for me to struggle on my own and invest more time into what I am doing instead of asking for support.
“I am supporting UCU’s Day of Action for Disability Equality in Education.”
See the person, not the disability
I am an autistic woman Postgraduate research student. I feel there are both positives and negatives to being an autistic woman at university. Primarily, I am part of a minority within a minority. Firstly, by being a woman and secondly, by being autistic. Portrayals of disabled students at university rarely include autistic people and in particular autistic women.
The biggest challenge I have found during university is people’s perceptions towards me. Most people have been friendly, but I have encountered many comments about my ability or their perceived ability of me. Frequently I have been told that I’m doing a PhD and therefore should not have problems with supposedly mundane tasks like buying lunch or working out appropriate clothes to wear. Although the implication of these comments alludes to the fact if I have the skills to do a PhD, I should have skills to cope in the ‘normal’ world. It is really difficult to explain that having the academic ability to do a PhD is not comparable to life skills.
Whenever I attend conferences, few list their accessibility features and of these few most focus purely on physical disability such as emphasising buildings are wheelchair accessible. Although, physical access needs should be highlighted in conference information I would love to see more conferences giving consideration to autistic (and other non-physical disability) for example, having a quiet room and photographs of the conference space. One conference I attended – Ableism in Academia – had all food labelled and wrapped to ensure those with food intolerances were able to navigate food easily. No conference, or any space, can ever be truly accessible to all as access needs are very individual, but academic events can strive to have inclusivity at the centre of the event.
I have found being autistic at university positive in some respects, there is a large camaraderie between the autistic students here. We are mainly united from the difficulties and challenges we face throughout university on a daily basis. I do not know if I would have met other autistic women at university if I had not had challenges in which I needed to find support.
“I can’t change my disability but you can change your attitude!” #IncludeUs