DESPITE progress, disabled people are still less likely to be in employment in Scotland. Less than half of disabled people aged 16 to 64 were in employment in 2015, compared to 80 per cent of those not disabled.
For disabled employees, barriers to gaining and retaining employment remain. The stigma linked to disability can make employees reluctant to disclose it, fearing they will be marginalised, mocked or seen as a problem. Securing the legally-required reasonable adjustments, such as a ground-floor office for those with limited mobility, can be time-consuming and difficult. Employees are often forced to pursue adjustments themselves.
In higher education, the picture is similar: not enough progress has been made and a gulf exists between how disabled students and staff are treated. Students can apply for funding to support their studies, to cover the costs of specialist equipment or a personal assistance service such as a transcriber or support worker. Support services liaise between the student and staff at university to ensure adjustments are made. Unfortunately, the long-term future of the funding to disabled students is unclear and the needs of disabled students are yet to be fully met.
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Disabled students are proportionately more likely to take out a complaint against their university. Some report isolation and difficulty getting adjustments and are more likely to drop out of their studies. The sector is working to improve disabled students’ university experiences. Universities are encouraged to involve disabled students in curricula design and campus developments at early stages, to improve their experience and ensure they can participate as fully as non-disabled students.
In contrast, academics and staff in UK universities have been neglected in much of higher education’s policy making and research. There is no reliable data on the number of staff who could be considered disabled under the Equality Act 2010, in part due to lack of disclosure by staff. Disability falls under the umbrella of broader equality agendas. Work in this area has shown the effects of discriminatory practices and structures that have limited the career progression of women academics and those from ethnic minority backgrounds. Students from marginalised backgrounds are not being taught by those similar to them. Their experiences are often excluded from reading lists and curricula.
Disabled academics are scarcely seen and even more rarely talked about. Anecdotal evidence suggests disabled academics find working life in universities challenging, with some choosing to leave the sector. Mobility between institutions is often essential for a career in academia but difficult for disabled academics who may not be able to move away from family and broader support networks.
Informal working practices for some staff may provide respite for disabled academics, who are able to adjust their working week to suit their needs. Many fear they do not meet the stereotype of an ideal worker in academia, in part due to the invisibility of disabled academics. Reliance on anecdotal evidence makes the development of robust policy to support disabled employees very difficult. It’s essential that universities reach out to disabled staff to understand their experiences and embed accessibility in working life.
Universities are facing challenges, particularly in light of Brexit. According to reports, many staff are considering alternative careers; the sector may face a brain drain. With an uncertain future, universities must ensure they have motivated, skilled and engaged staff to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body.
Universities should work with staff and trade unions to examine practices that discriminate against disabled employees. One step could be to recognise the difficulty of international travel for staff with mobility or care needs and take this into account when seeking promotion. This will help ensure that disabled academics are better supported; that curricula reflect the complex workplaces for students; and that research is orientated towards addressing these problems. There is an opportunity for universities to work with disabled staff and students to create campuses, courses and environments that are inclusive and allow all of us to thrive.