Disabled staff discrimination 'widespread'

7th March 2008 at 00:00

Call for funding to correct `obvious injustice' of colleges employing too few disabled workers colleges as in general working population

A year-long inquiry into disability in further education has concluded there is "widespread institutional discrimination" against disabled staff in colleges.

The commission for disabled staff in lifelong learning found that colleges are hiring too few disabled people, with just 4 per cent of the workforce declaring disabilities compared with 20 per cent of the general population.

Sponsored by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, its report claimed staff fear discrimination and that disabled workers suffer from "fatalism" about their job prospects, with few institutions employing them in senior positions.

Leisha Fullick, chair of the commission, said staff had not benefited to the same degree from the changes which made colleges a better place for disabled students in the last 10 years.

"There is a clear problem about the under-representation of disabled staff in lifelong learning," said Ms Fullick.

"And we saw little evidence of organizations adopting a strategic approach to current and future disabled staff.

"At the very least this represents a huge loss of potential and is not a sound business approach."

She added: "It is also an indication that, 10 years on, legislation designed to reduce discrimination against disabled people in the workplace is not having a sufficient impact on employment practice in lifelong learning."

Colleges and training providers had adapted to disability rights legislation which required them to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers, but they had not taken the next step of anticipating what disabled people need and creating a welcoming working environment, the report said.

It suggested that attitudes to disability tended to reflect on an institution's general performance and attitude to staff, so improvements for disabled people would indirectly benefit all further education workers.

The report's recommendations included targets to place more disabled staff in senior positions; funds to support disabled workers in the same way as students to correct "an obvious injustice"; and encouragement for college employees with disabilities to attend leadership and management training.

It also said that a timetable should be set for achieving the same proportion of disabled workers in colleges as there are in the general working population. In addition, there should be better arrangements for disclosing disabilities to ease the concerns of staff who fear they may suffer discrimination as a result.

Commenting on the report, Sue Dutton, acting chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "While the commission rightly highlights a lack of consistency in the lifelong learning sector, there is an encouraging amount of good practice which can be shared to improve disability equality.

"Colleges recognise that this is only the starting point and that more needs to be done."

Bill Rammell, minister for further and higher education, said he had "serious doubts" about the recommendation that the Government should set targets on the numbers of staff disclosing disability, arguing that it could put pressure on people to reveal personal information that they had a right to keep private if they wished.

He added: "I don't claim that we've achieved equality, but we're on the road towards it. And many of us are personally committed to taking us further and faster down that road."

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