More power to being different

24th November 2006 at 00:00
Neil Merrick looks at the potential impact of the new law on disability.

Michelle jones was stunned when a colleague told her he was disabled.

"There didn't appear to be anything wrong to me," said the English lecturer at City College Manchester.

Nothing betrayed his disability; there was no obvious physical signs or mental problems. "But he told me he had had a heart attack and had been ill for a number of years," she said.

Her colleague's revelation was not only a shock but also a source of potential embarrassment since Ms Jones, who is deaf - one of the most debilitating problems for a language lecturer - is also the college's equality and diversity officer.

Across FE as a whole, staff records suggest that just one in 50 employees has a disability, but the true figure is almost certainly much higher.

"I am concerned about a number of staff who have an invisible disability,"

Ms Jones said.

Appointed three years ago to teach English and IT to deaf students, she joined the small number of FE staff to declare a disability and set about working to encourage others to do likewise.

She and other campaigners hope that, from next month, disabled staff in colleges will be more willing to step forward, as employers come under new pressure to acknowledge the right of people with disabilities to a fair deal in the workplace.

The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 requires public authorities, including FE colleges, to eliminate discrimination and harassment. Not only must they draw up disability equality schemes, but also all changes in policy must be assessed for their impact on disabled people.

Ms Jones communicates through British sign language, which can mean difficulties when a student with hearing comes into the office and there is no interpreter around.

"Mainstream tutors aren't aware that I have to book an interpreter if they want me to attend a meeting at short notice," she said.

Pauline Hitt, the equality and diversity manager at the Isle of Wight College, says the Act will sharpen-up the way colleges approach disability.

In some cases, it may just mean offering staff flexible hours or new software for their computer.

Department for Trade and Industry figures suggest one in five of the working population has a disability that may need consideration, but only one in 100 declare it.

Ms Hitt said: "People have always been reticent. They are afraid it will jeopardise their appointment or even promotion."

Trades unions say many colleges are unprepared for the regulations, which come into force on December 4. Even where colleges are aware of the Act, more attention may be paid to the needs of learners than staff.

Sian Davies, the disability equality organiser at Unison, the public services workers union, said: "Some people find it easier to disclose a disability through their trade union branch secretary than tell their boss."

Ms Davies is leading a 12-month project, which began in the summer, to see how FE responds to the Act. Six colleges were selected to test new procedures that promote more positive attitudes towards people with disabilities and help them overcome any fear of stigma.

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