Able bodies at work

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Disability should not be a bar to teaching or promotion, Phil Revell reports

Mabel Davis is the successful headteacher of the Heathlands school in St Albans. The last Office for Standards in Education report referred to her "strong and effective leadership" and GCSE and national test results for the school show a strong upward trend.

Mabel has excelled in her career since she began training in Liverpool in the 70s, yet she still meets people who need to be convinced about her ability to do the job. For Mabel is profoundly deaf.

There are very few disabled teachers, though 14.2 per cent of adults are disabled, 6.2 million people. On that basis every secondary school in the country ought to have some staff with a disability of some kind.

A quota system designed to achieve just that has been in operation for 50 years. Three per cent of all posts were supposed to be held open for those with a disability, but the quota was never enforced and real levels of employment for disabled people remained very low. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was designed to remedy this and its provisions came into force this year. The Act makes it an offence for employers to discriminate against people "solely on the grounds of disability". If an employer's decision is held to be "unreasonable" then action can be taken through industrial tribunals in the same way as under other equal opportunities legislation. Pupils are not covered by the legislation, but other premise users are. So a school that has extra curricular community use will need to consider the requirements of the legislation.

Mary Howard, equal opportunities officer for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, felt that the legislation was long overdue. In common with other organisations, the NASUWT argued during the consultation period that the Act was flawed, with too narrow a definition of disability. But, she says "It is going to be used more by the teaching profession than the other equal opportunities Acts. People are going to come forward to declare their disability."

The National Union of Teachers are also largely in favour of the legislation except that full implementation in the education sector will be hampered by underfunding.

Cost implications frighten many employers, yet equivalent legislation in the United States did not have the dire effects predicted. According to one estimate of the cost of implementing this US law: * 31 per cent of disabled employees had no additional cost * 19 per cent cost between $1 and $5 * 19 per cent cost between $500 and $1,000 * 11 per cent cost between $1,000 and $5,000 * 1 per cent cost more than $5,000.

Margaret Davis teaches at the Grangetown infant school in Cardiff. She has been a wheelchair user since 1990. She teaches Year 1 and the classroom adaptations required have been simple, mostly a matter of having shelves and blackboards at a sensible height.

"I've been given the largest classroom and I've adapted it for my own use. The head and staff have been very supportive, it's not as difficult as people might think."

Cardiff adapted the entrance to the school to allow for wheelchair access and the teachers' centre has provided a dedicated parking space and a ramp.

Margaret finds the children are "absolutely fantastic". Pupils are allowed to push her wheelchair, but only as a special treat. There are areas of the school that Margaret cannot reach, but she does not feel that this interferes with her job.

Those looking for a definition of disability within education should consult Department for Education and Employment circular 1393. Physical handicap, hearing loss and visual impairment are all covered in the circular, which concludes that none of these disabilities is an automatic bar to teaching. Where doubt exists responsible authorities are recommended to arrange for individuals to be observed in teaching.

Margaret Davis argues that: "The question has to be 'Is this the best person for the job?' If the answer is 'Yes' then it is the duty of the LEA and the governors to ensure that the disabled person has all the technology and human resource aids necessary for the efficient performance of their duties. If the answer is 'No', then the panel need to ensure that the right reasons are given, for example, lack of relevant skills, rather than lack of physical or sensory facilities."

Margaret sees the Act as a welcome start, but feels it will have little bearing on job prospects. "It only helps those in employment and the hard part continues to be in getting there at all."

Where to turn to for Help

Placement Assessment and Counselling Teams have been set up by the Employment Service to provide equipment and other services for disabled people. The aim is to limit costs to organisations employing disabled people. Contact Employment Service, Disability Services Branch. 01742 596131 or your Job Centre. Disability Matters: 01794 341144 DFEE Circular 1393. Physical Mental Fitness to Teach of Teachers and Entrants to Initial Teacher Training. DFEE Publications 0171 510 0150Guide to the Disability Discrimination Act. SKILL: 0171 274 0565

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