Handicapped by the law

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Ministers have ignored disabled governors, so what can they do? asks Diana Hinds

WHEN Labour came to power in 1997 and appointed a blind education secretary, June Maylin, a blind school governor, hoped that her life was about to get easier.

"But when the school wrote to him, he wrote back more or less saying sort it out for yourself," says Mrs Maylin. "I didn't think that was very helpful."

Mrs Maylin became a governor at her children's primary school in 1996 - after the head suggested it and she found herself the only parent to have filled in the application form. "I found it very difficult at first, because there was nothing in braille and nothing on tape," she remembers.

"I only managed by people reading things out at meetings."

She is now chair of governors at Giffards infants, in Corringham, Essex, and vice-chair at Giffards juniors. She is often in school, accompanied by her guide dog, Becky, where she hears children read - "they think I won't notice if they skip a page," she jokes, "but I know the books quite well" - and has regular meetings with the head. But coping with all the paperwork is still a struggle.

Last year, Mrs Maylin's husband bought her a scanner for her birthday, so that she could hear documents read aloud. But while this worked for normal text, the computer could not cope with tables of figures, and in the end Mrs Maylin reluctantly sent it back. She is now hoping that the council might contribute towards the cost of a more sophisticated computer that could read both text and tables to her, but so far progress has been slow.

"At times, I think I'll stop as a governor, because it's frustrating," she says. "But I have so much knowledge now. I don't want to give it up because I enjoy it. It does open your eyes to the way schools are run."

Although there are no figures for governors with disabilities, June Maylin is far from alone. But there is still no official provision for their needs. The recent Disability Discrimination Act 2002 did much for disabled pupils, but does not mention governors.

The omission is not lost on Claire Doel, an independent equality specialist, who is registered blind and a parent governor at her daughter's primary school in Sheffield. "Governors with disabilities have just been overlooked," she says. "It means it is very much up to individuals to negotiate with their own school and local authority, because they have no rights by law."

Ms Doel has a computer with braille display and speech, but can have problems with information on the web. She would also like to see governors' information targeted - for example, to primary or secondary governors - to reduce the sheer volume of paperwork.

The Government is expected to introduce a disability Bill this autumn, focusing on the findings of its disability task force. But whereas the task force looked at the issue of disabled councillors - who, like governors, fall outside provision made for employees - governors were again overlooked, according to Catherine Casserley, senior legal officer of the Royal National Institute for the Blind.

"The RNIB will be asking the Government to consider including school governors in the disability Bill," she says. "They should be entitled to reasonable adjustments, so that they can carry out their duties effectively. If these governors can't get information in a format they can access, it is going to take them much longer, and the school is not going to get the best out of them. This will only deter others."

Patricia Robertson, registered blind and chair of governors at the RNIB Redhill College of further education in Surrey, can at least call on the college's specialist facilities. When her computer fails to read tables, she can ask for the document to be put on tape at the transcription centre.

She also has a personal assistant, who has helped her over the years on a voluntary basis.

"We have five people with disabilities on our governing body, which means we are all coming from the same angle - we understand the need to be clear and concise in meetings, and not to talk over people. Things do take that much longer, but it's enjoyable work because you're shaping a future."

Mervyn Frost, who is deaf, became a governor at a mainstream school in Exeter five months ago, in order to help raise awareness about integrating deaf children in mainstream schools. Good sign language interpreters are essential for him at meetings - long meetings require two - and he has difficulties if more than one governor talks at once. His needs are regularly reviewed by Devon's head of governor services and he is enjoying the challenge. He hopes to encourage other deaf people to come forward as governors.

"If I can do it, so can anyone," he says.

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