Know your rights

15th November 2002 at 00:00
Susannah Kirkman explains the implications for schools of the Disability Discrimination Act

Teachers with disabilities often find that schools push them into early retirement, rather than helping them continue teaching.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, says:

"Employers see teachers with disabilities as a liability, and, unfortunately , many are eased into early retirement against their wishes."

An estimated 1 per cent of teachers are disabled, a far smaller proportion than the 16 per cent of the overall workforce identified by the Labour Force Survey.

One disabled teacher explains the difficulties: "An unsympathetic headteacher has often resisted attempts to make the provision to help me stay in work. There have been attempts to intimidate me and bully me into staying quiet about my needs."

Many schools still seem unfamiliar with the Disability Discrimination Act, which says employers must make "reasonable adjustments" to enable a disabled person to work effectively. These might mean switching a teacher's classroom to the ground floor, installing a wheelchair ramp, providing an induction loop for teachers with hearing aids or a laptop with a spell check for a teacher with dyslexia.

The Act protects those with a physical or mental impairment which has a "substantial and long-term adverse effect" on their ability to carry out normal, day-to-day activities. It says employees with disabilities must not be treated "less favourably" than someone who is not disabled. A teacher with mental health difficulties who arrives two hours late after a panic attack should not be regarded any differently to a teacher who is late because of a sick child, for instance.

A survey conducted by the Department for Education and Skills showed that 48 per cent of necessary adjustments cost under pound;50 and 95 per cent cost under pound;5,000. Governors are expected to meet "small" adjustments from the school's budget, but local education authorities should fund "major", one-off expenditure.

Schools can also apply to the Access to Work fund, through the disability employment adviser at the local job centre. If the disabled teacher has been in post for more than six weeks, the employer is expected to meet the first pound;300, plus 20 per cent of all further costs up to pound;10,000.

Money may also be available from the Schools Access Initiative or the Teachers' Benevolent Fund.

Schools also need to focus on the benefits disabled staff bring. "It is helpful for the school to encourage a climate in which disability is not perceived as a weakness. Allow us to come out of the closet," urges one secondary teacher.

Guidance on the Disability Discrimination Act can be found at: www.dfes.gov.uk publications. The NUT has an excellent Toolbag for Disabled Teachers, available on its website: www.teachers.org.uk

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