Perspectives, Implications and Strategies for Disabled Staff
The National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) has produced a position paper regarding the experience of disabled staff, their perspectives relating to implications of COVID-19 as well as strategies for the post-lockdown period. In this paper, NADSN’s observations about the lived experiences of disabled people during COVID-19 are discussed alongside considerations of the changing workplace and relevant policies and practices. The paper concludes with a series of recommendations concerning disabled staff.
The position paper can be downloaded as a DOCX version from here and as a PDF version from here.
From the position paper:
Guiding Principle: An Individualised, Consultative Approach
The basis for all strategies must be a recognition that individuals have very differing needs, that the situation we find ourselves in is unique and unprecedented, and that therefore more flexibility than ever is required to ensure equity and inclusion. In effect, we are asking for individuals to be able and allowed to negotiate the finely grained approach that is best suited for individuals’ personal circumstances and needs. Where flexible working arrangements are not possible, NADSN strongly argues that governments work with employers to fully fund paid leave for Disabled staff at high risk of severe symptoms until the risk of infection is negligible. NADSN has made 12 recommendations:
Recommendation 1: Necessity of COVID-19 HEI Response to be Equality Impact Assessed
We strongly recommend that HEIs use this pandemic situation as an opportunity to ensure that any line management training, policies and procedures pertaining to managing Disabled workers (e.g. absence management, capability, carers, health, safety and wellbeing, personal and career development reviews, etc.), are robustly equality impact assessed/analysed if they have not already. This will ensure they do not have a differential or adverse impact on certain groups, which are protected by law against discrimination.
Recommendation 2: No-Detriment Policy – widening application to Staff & Doctoral Students
Many HEIs have already adopted a “no-detriment” policy for the remainder of the academic year 2019/20. In some HEIs this extends to postgraduate taught or research students, but in others, this approach is limited to undergraduate students only. We recommend that these policies are extended to the academic year 2020/21. Within the context of the Equality Act 2010, we recommend that the no-detriment policy be broadened to cover staff as well as students. The no-detriment policy will set out how students unable to attend campuses will not face any detriment to their learning, teaching or assessment, will not be penalised for attending remotely, and will be able to access all student services whether attending campus or studying from home. In particular, we recommend clear policies and strategies relating to doctoral students and international students who may require additional support regarding extensions to submission dates.
Recommendation 3: Course, programme and module evaluations
Commonly, evaluations for courses delivered online in HEIs that are usually not providing distance learning courses differ greatly from courses delivered in person on campus. This is, in part, due to different expectations of what learning looks like in these contexts and expectations potentially not being met because of altered ways of working. Consequently, within the no-detriment policy, a clear statement relating to the role of course evaluations is required, in particular as course evaluations and module feedback are often used as criteria for career progression of staff. Instead, HEIs should continue to solicit feedback through evaluations, but with guaranteed caveats that everyone is trying their best under emergency, non-ideal circumstances and that evaluations will not be used to penalise or disadvantage individuals.
Recommendation 4: Access to teaching and learning
Staff and students should have the choice between attending in person or remotely. This will have implications on how course delivery is developed in practice. However, no student or staff member should be forced or indirectly coerced through informal sanctions, to travel to campus, when they, or someone they live with, is at an increased risk from COVID-19.
Recommendation 5: Access to meetings
The COVID-19 lockdown experience has shown that meetings and business can be held effectively via collaborative platforms, such as MS Teams, Zoom, and Blackboard Collaborate. The infrastructure, to varying degrees across HEIs, is now in place, and therefore there is no reason why individuals should not be able and allowed to dial into a meeting as a matter of course as part of remote working arrangements.
Recommendation 6: Returning to campus
Where the return to campus is considered, NADSN recommends policies that recognise not only safety on the campus itself, but also on the way to campus or between university and placement sites. Whilst some institutional locations allow for relatively safe journeys to and from the place of work and study, there are others where journeys via public transport cannot be avoided. Any reasonable adjustment strategies and agreements for a return to campus should include contextual factors that may impact on Disabled staff and students.
Recommendation 7: Revision of workload and tasks
All workload allocations in relation to staff and students require an intersectionality informed approach. For example, those who have caring and/or childcare responsibilities are disproportionately affected by the current circumstances. Where it is possible, managers and tutors should encourage staff and students to consider flexibility in their hours of work and agree a solution that works effectively to assist them in balancing their home responsibilities with work and study commitments. Additionally, programme teams should consider how workload in their teams may be reorganised and reallocated, so that people at an increased risk from COVID-19, who cannot travel to campus, have the opportunity to take on more remote tutorials and student support sessions combined with more marking instead of their face-to-face teaching load.
Recommendation 8: Consideration of the impact of furlough scheme
Some HEIs have furloughed staff members instead of providing reasonable adjustments to ensure they may be able to work from home. For academic staff even on full pay, being furloughed can have a negative impact on career in terms of losing influence (the good committee work or enjoyable projects get reassigned) and access to resources (lab or office space) and colleagues, which can have a negative impact on career progression.
Furthermore, we would like to highlight the potential redundancies of vulnerable Disabled staff due to downsizing of organisations and the threat of recession. Apart from voluntary severance schemes, managers are being asked to identify vulnerable areas to cut in organisations. Added with the insecurity of employment and the casualisation of contracts, Disabled staff may be at increased risk due to their extra support needs.
Recommendation 9: Careers progressions and promotions criteria
In line with the Equality Act 2010, a clear and dedicated statement and fair, transparent policy reviews in career progression and promotions criteria are needed to ensure that people at an increased risk from COVID-19 are not disadvantaged in these processes until a vaccine is found, even if this may take 18-24 months, or longer. This extends to formulation of policy guidelines for the REF.
Recommendation 10: Research outputs and REF
The differential impact of COVID-19 on Disabled researchers needs to be acknowledged and more significantly, there is a need for (1) further research about the COVID-19 impact on publication submission and REF outputs, and (2) procedures around reasonable adjustments with respect to COVID-19 to be implemented so that Disabled staff are not disadvantaged in their career progression.
Recommendation 11: Disability disclosure and accessibility requirements
Within the context of the teaching and learning environments and research and administrative work, the current COVID-19 crisis presents a unique opportunity. Given that deprioritising care on the basis of disability could be characterised as a form of soft eugenics, and that many HEIs have medical professionals working for them, we recommend that educational ethical guidance regarding care of Disabled people with COVID-19 be provided. Disability Rights UK’s guidance on “COVID-19 and the rights of disabled people” would be an excellent model for communicating this concern quickly to staff.
Further, we know from statistics that many within higher education still do not disclose their conditions or needs for fear of retribution. Instead of considering accessibility measures as temporary and disability disclosure as a mere statistical matter, we should incorporate Disabled staff/students and accessibility norms as a core aspect of university life, to the extent that studentship and workforce in higher education reflects human diversity. HEI’s have the chance to make academic communities accessible for a much wider group of people by continuing the current ‘temporary measures’ for and, in the long-term, by fostering a proactive approach to disability-inclusion.
Recommendation 12: Disabled staff in high risk positions
During the lockdown of HEIs, many staff continued to work on-site to enable HEIs to operate. These staff are employed in positions related to estates, maintenance, security, technical and cleaning services. In addition, staff are also engaged in clinical roles and work with the NHS. It is imperative in preparations for returning to work, inclusive of COVID-19 on campus arrangements, that Disabled workers are able to negotiate work conditions and adjustments, without any detriment, that will minimise potential exposures to the virus, particularly if those staff have an underlying health condition.