A world-renowned university is facing claims of “institutional failings”, after an investigation by its own disabled students into allegations of disability discrimination.

The Disabled Students’ Network (DSN) of University College London (UCL) is set to publish a report next week which accuses the university of repeatedly failing to make reasonable adjustments for its disabled students and overcharging them for their accessible accommodation.

The report – which has been welcomed by UCL – includes results from a survey of disabled UCL students, which found two-thirds of them (67 per cent) had experienced disablism by UCL and about three-fifths (58 per cent) said they had been made to feel unwelcome by the university because of their impairments.

Last year, UCL was ranked as the world’s eighth best university, as well as the third best in the UK and the fourth best in Europe.

The survey was carried out in November and December 2019 after DSN was approached by several disabled students with “worrying reports of their treatment” by the university.

Many disabled students told DSN they had experienced a deterioration in their health and had thought about quitting their course, as a result of the treatment they had received.

The report says the testimonies collected by DSN “indicate that the average disabled student’s experience at UCL is likely to include being expected to study in spaces that are not accessible to them, encountering ignorant or offensive statements about disabled people from an academic or administrative staff member, not being informed or being misled about their rights” and having to “spend a significant amount of time chasing after a reasonable adjustment and either having it be denied or significantly delayed”.

The reasonable adjustments that have been refused include requests to secure recordings of lectures and applications for extra time for exams.

The report – Disability Discrimination Faced by UCL Students – says DSN was able last term “to ensure that several students, after months without support, finally receive the reasonable adjustments that the law states should be in place when they start their education”.

It adds: “Without our work several of them would have had to terminate their studies.

“At the same time our work has no power to give these students back the first months of their studies.

“Nor are we able to advocate for students who do not know their rights because they do not come to us when they have issues.”

DSN says it hopes the report will achieve “change on an institutional scale and not just individual victories”.

One disabled student told DSN: “The amount of explaining yourself and how much you have to prove how you are being affected by things can make you feel like you are being treated as though you don’t have a disability.

“Like having to explain that autism is permanent and affects you physically, mentally and emotionally over and over again and that all autistic students are different from each other.”

Another said: “Throughout my whole university experience I’ve felt unwelcome and unheard.

“Whenever I would bring up my situation to my examinations officer he would advise me to either drop out or simply get on with it.”

A third student said: “When my mental and physical health worsened last year, I felt that I needed to take some sick-leave.

“Unfortunately, my supervisor and course organiser did not feel that this was in my best interests, and repeatedly discouraged me from applying for leave, or even seeking external advice on this matter.”

Another told DSN: “Access needs are not being met at all at UCL. I cannot get into and out of any classroom or lecture theatre within UCL’s Institute of Education independently – thus surely failing to meet the legal requirements outlaid within the 2010 Equality Act, entirely.”

One student said: “Because I feel so unwelcome here compared to my last institution I’ve thought about dropping out many times.

“Since the lack of support caused my illness to flare up I might not have a choice.”

Michelle Daley, interim director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), pointed to an ombudsman’s ruling on Richmond council’s failure to support disabled children, published this week (see separate story), and an ALLFIE report on the failure of schools to be fully inclusive for disabled pupils, due to be published next week.

She said: “It’s just the start of the year and already we are starting to see these failures in disabled people’s education.

“It’s scary to think what the rest of the year might be like.”

Among the report’s recommendations, DSN calls for: a new team of trained staff to address the issues raised by its report; disability equality training for staff running UCL’s facilities; all broken lifts to be fixed; a map of toilets on the university’s campuses in central and east London; training for all heads of department by a disability consultancy; regular surveys of disabled students’ experiences; a more streamlined complaints process; and efforts by UCL to inform disabled students of their rights.

DSN also wants the university to set up a system that will ensure that all students who disclose they are disabled when they apply for a place can set up a “summary of reasonable adjustments” before they begin their studies; and for all lecturers to be told they can no longer refuse requests to record their lectures without providing equally good alternatives.

And it wants the university to contact all disabled students with information about overcharging for accessible accommodation and how they can secure reductions in their rent.

UCL welcomed the report and said it would “take seriously all issues raised” and “implement any necessary improvements to ensure its policies and practices meet best practice and that teaching, learning and student life at UCL are inclusive and accessible”.

A UCL spokesperson said: “We are committed to fostering a welcoming and caring environment for all of our students.

“Ensuring excellent student experience and academic outcomes for all disabled students is an absolute priority for us.

“The wellbeing of disabled students at UCL is of utmost importance and we will be working with the group to make sure their concerns are addressed and the best possible support is in place.”

16 January 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

 

 

A local authority is seeking government funds for a “unique” £4 million project that would transport disabled people into the heart of a historic city via “on demand” electric, driverless shuttles.

The trial would allow disabled people with blue parking badges to request a shuttle service from park and ride facilities on the fringes of York to key amenities and tourist destinations in its pedestrianised city centre, using a kiosk in the carparks or via a mobile phone app, website, or phone.

The routes taken would be “flexible” and would depend upon requests made by disabled customers, with the shuttles running in addition to conventional bus services.

Although the shuttles would be automated and driverless, City of York Council plans for them to be staffed by “customer care assistants”.

The council believes there are about 20,000 potential customers with blue badges in the Greater York area, as well as many more from wider afield.

It says it would work with blue badge holders to design the details of the scheme if it secured the funding.

City of York Council is seeking funds for the project as part of a wider £27 million bid for funding put together by West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) (PDF) under the government’s Future Mobility Zone scheme, as York moves towards a city centre that is car-free for non-essential journeys.

In its funding bid, WYCA says the scheme would “benefit users’ mobility and increase the opportunities for them to access amenities, services and locations for employment and education.

“This can improve their quality of life and meet their needs as existing commuters, prospective workers, job seekers, people on lower incomes or young people.”

It also says the scheme would reduce the need for people with mobility impairments to make private car journeys into the city centre and would lower their transport costs.

It adds: “We will develop the service offer, customer environment and interfaces with user groups to ensure that it specifically meets their needs and expectations and provides as frictionless as possible a journey to the heart of one of the UK’s premier tourist cities.”

James Gilchrist, the council’s assistant director for transport, highways and environment, said: “City of York Council is bidding for Department for Transport funding which seeks to promote innovations in transport which harness new technologies and support mobility for all.

“Our bid could create the opportunity for York to pioneer an innovative solution to support people with mobility issues in and around our historic and vibrant city.

“This involves trialling a new transport service for mobility-impaired users, registered under the blue badge scheme.

“This proposal is only possible due to our city’s advanced digital infrastructure and our Smart Transport Programme.

“The proposal follows positive conversations at city centre access workshops, where the idea of an ‘on demand’ shuttle service from outside of the city centre was widely well received.”

The Department for Transport said a decision on the WYCA funding bid would be made “in due course”.

9 January 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

 

 

A local authority has become the second in London to set up an independent, user-led commission to investigate the barriers faced by disabled residents.

Lewisham Disabled People’s Commission (LDPC) will be led by disabled people and will examine organisational, attitudinal and physical barriers faced by disabled adults in the borough, and how Lewisham council and others can address those barriers.

They will review key research and information and hear from local disabled residents and users of local services before producing a final report for the council, with recommendations for change.

The commission was set up after an election manifesto commitment by Lewisham Labour council candidates and will be chaired by disabled writer, poet and campaigner Jamie Hale, with its report expected in about a year’s time.

Hale said one of the key issues the commission would examine was the impact of social care charges.

He said: “I know from personal experience that when you live on benefits the adult social care charges can be enormous and wipe out most of your disposable income.

“While I no longer face these, I remain passionate about campaigning to abolish them.”

He said he had made it clear to the council that the direction and conclusions would be set independently by the commission and that it “will not be operating in the pocket of the council”.

The council has pledged to take the commission’s recommendations seriously but has not promised to implement them.

Hale said that likely recommendations such as abolishing care charges could have “significant budgetary implications”, but he said he hoped the council would implement many of the recommendations immediately, and “do the long term work necessary to implement the others”.

Hale said the commission was needed because of the impact of austerity on disabled people.

He said: “As [the work of Disability News Service] has noted, cuts to public services have disproportionately affected disabled people, and this is a situation that requires redress.

“Both the decisions taken around the cuts to be made and the cuts themselves need analysis, and the commission will be looking at the impact of this on disabled people, and what can be done differently in future.”

Lewisham no longer has a disabled people’s user-led organisation, following the closure of Lewisham Disability Coalition, which he said had left disabled people without an organisation working between them and the council, and without their own advice service.

Hale said: “One of the key things we will consider is how the council should relate to disabled people in an ongoing fashion to ensure disabled people are at the heart of making decisions that will affect us.”

Last year, the user-led Hammersmith and Fulham Disabled People’s Commission produced a pioneering report on how to remove the barriers disabled people faced in their London borough by embedding a culture of genuine co-production within the council.

Now LDPC is hoping to follow in its path.

Hale said the work and report in Hammersmith and Fulham had helped him understand the possibilities of such a commission.

He said: “We hope to report back both on specific changes the council should make to decisions and to decision-making processes, and the focus on the Hammersmith and Fulham commission on co-production has been interesting.

“I hope to meet with members of that commission to learn about their experience of their work, and what impact their recommendation of coproduction has really had – whether it was as effective as they had hoped.”

He said he believed an emphasis on a culture of co-production within the council would also be important in Lewisham.

He said: “I think we will make quickly achievable recommendations, recommendations that are aspirational and shape changes we would like to see in the long term, like abolishing care charges, and recommendations to change how decisions are made within the council, and it is there that coproduction – when done properly instead of as a token or to rubber-stamp harmful decisions – is likely to be a focus of our work.”

Another member of the commission, Richard Amm, told DNS: “The commission is important because it is an opportunity for actual disabled people to have their say about how local government affects our daily lives.”

He said he hoped its work would “make things fairer and more accessible” for disabled people in the borough.

Four other disabled people have already been appointed to the commission, which is seeking to recruit up to six more disabled local residents who have a commitment to promoting the rights of disabled people*.

Hale said: “I’m really keen to reach out to people who might not have realised they can be part of something like this and encourage them to apply.

“With a broad and diverse coalition of commissioners I believe we can make some real changes in the borough.”

Cllr Jonathan Slater, Lewisham council’s cabinet member for the community sector, said: “Lewisham is a welcoming borough and we are determined that it is accessible and open to all.

“Jamie’s experience means he is well-placed to lead Lewisham’s Disabled People’s Commission and I am very excited about the positive difference it will make to our residents with disabilities.”

*The closing date for applications is 6 January 2020

11 December 2019. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

 

 

The government’s flagship disability employment scheme has managed to sign up less than 80 private sector employers in more than three years to its highest accreditation level, new research has found.

When Disability Confident was relaunched in 2016, the scheme allowed employers to sign up even if they do not employ any disabled people at all.

And employers can reach the first two levels simply by assessing themselves on their own performance, after which DWP will send them a badge and a certificate that they can use to promote their “disability confidence”.

It is only if they want to become a Disability Confident Leader – the highest of the scheme’s three levels – that their self-assessment must be “validated” by another organisation.

DWP itself was declared a Disability Confident leader on 4 November 2016, just days before the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities found it guilty of “grave” and “systematic” violations of disabled people’s rights under the UN disability convention.

Now research by Professor Nick Bacon, of Cass Business School, and Professor Kim Hoque, of Warwick Business School, has revealed that less than 80 of the employers that have achieved the level of Disability Confident Leader (level three of the three-tiered scheme) are private sector employers.

The remaining 190 or so level three employers are voluntary or public sector organisations, many of them disability charities.

Of all 15,000-plus Disability Confident members, including those on levels one and two, less than half are private sector employers.

Bacon and Hoque point out that this shows only a tiny proportion of the 1.39 million UK private sector businesses that are not sole traders have signed up to the scheme, which is probably as low as 0.5 per cent of them.

They say the figures show that the government’s key “business case” argument for encouraging employers to sign up to Disability Confident – that it provides a wider talent pool, and allows them to recruit hardworking and committed staff, and enhance their reputation – appears to have had a “limited” impact.

Hoque and Bacon called on the government to make it mandatory for Disability Confident Leaders to report on how many of their staff are disabled people, and for this to be extended to level two members [those given the status of Disability Confident Employers].

Last month, Disability News Service reported that government plans to introduce mandatory reporting for Disability Confident Leaders was scrapped just days after it was announced.

The two academics also say Disability Confident Leaders should have to ensure that the percentage of disabled people within their workforce is substantially above the UK average, while Disability Confident Employers should have to ensure the proportion of staff that is disabled is at least equivalent to the UK average.

And they say the government should remove level two and three status from employers who persistently employ a higher than average proportion of disabled people at lower pay rates, unless they can provide a valid reason for doing so.

Bacon and Hoque say there is currently no evidence that level two and three Disability Confident members are any more likely to hire and retain disabled people than other employers, which means the scheme “rewards employers for public declarations of intention rather than for delivering outcomes”.

David Gillon, a prominent disabled critic of Disability Confident since its original launch in July 2013, said the study was a “really welcome piece of research”.

He said the findings were “a huge condemnation of Disability Confident, not just for the obvious reason, but because any professionally designed programme should have had this kind of benchmarking built in from the beginning.

“You don’t know if initiatives are working unless you collect data at the start, and then again later, in order to tell you, and Disability Confident never proposed collecting the needed data.

“The data on the devastatingly poor take-up of Disability Confident among private sector firms is something that has been needed, but hardly something that can be welcomed.

“And in some of these companies, such as recruitment agencies, there are non-disability related reasons that may have led to the take-up.”

He added: “Perhaps most devastating for Disability Confident is this: after three years, we are still counting private sector Disability Confident Leaders in single figures in all but one business sector (which has 10).

“And Disability Confident Leader is awarded for a level of disability access to work that is arguably less than that required by law.”

Sue Bott, head of policy and research at Disability Rights UK, which has also been shown the report, said it “makes interesting reading but comes as no surprise.

“The problem with the Disability Confident programme all along has been that it lacks teeth.

“We will be raising this with the new government after the general election.”

A DWP spokesperson was unable to comment on the new research because of the general election campaign.

5 December 2019. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com