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Union leads call for action on ‘silent massacre’ of disabled staff and students

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A parliamentary meeting heard this month how disabled people working in the education sector have been confronted by employers that are failing to provide them with accessible lecture and teaching spaces, and delaying the provision of the reasonable adjustments they need and are entitled to under the Equality Act.

Joanna Vanderhoof, co-chair of UNISON’s eastern region disabled members’ committee, described how she had been forced to go through an internal grievance procedure to secure the reasonable adjustments she needed from her university employer. She said she had been “fundamentally failed” by her employer and as a result set up a disabled staff network and implemented workplace training on disability equality.She said: “My employer broke current legislation in multiple areas yet I’m the one who has suffered and they face no repercussions whatsoever." Vanderhoof said that current legislation was “simply not sufficient”.

Disabled physics teacher Saeeda Bugtti said she had gone from being a highly-praised “poster girl” for her school to being asked if she wanted to take early retirement, after she became disabled. She said: “As soon as I became disabled, I was too much of a problem.”She echoed other speakers who had described how long it took for reasonable adjustments to be agreed and implemented by employers.

Elane Heffernan, chair of UCU’s disabled members’ standing committee, who chaired the meeting, said: “We have to win this change. We cannot have this silent massacre of workers in education and students who cannot even get in through the door in the first place in terms of education.” 

Rachel O’Brien, disabled students’ officer for the NUS, said there was an increasing “marketisation” of further and higher education, as well as cuts to disabled students’ allowance in higher education and the introduction of education, health and care plans in further education, which had also led to cuts in support. She said the introduction of “fitness to study” policies – assessing whether someone can continue as a student by looking at aspects of their life on campus such as health, behavior and attendance – implicitly or even explicitly targeted disabled students, such as those with mental health conditions, and could see them kicked off their courses. She said: “It is no coincidence that this has come in at the same time as marketisation. Disabled students, to be frank, are expensive. Universities and colleges are being forced to be businesses. They have incentives to get rid of us, and they are trying to do it as fast as they possibly can.”

Among UCU’s demands are for legal rights to disability leave, a review of building regulations to ensure facilities are fully accessible, and strict time limits for reasonable adjustments to be provided for disabled staff. Campaigners who have supported the UCU campaign – including other unions such as the National Education Union and Unison – also want a legal right for disabled people to access mainstream education and a reversal of cuts to special educational needs and disability (SEND) spending.

Join the Disabled Students Community for their talk with Rachel O'Brien on Friday 7th December in meeting room 2 in the Hub at 12:30. 



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