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Understanding disability and neurodiversity

Elizabeth McCrum and Allan Laville

Following the announcement of a new focus on disability and neurodiversity by the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Allán Laville, Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, and Professor Elizabeth McCrum, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and UEB Champion for disability, highlight some of the issues facing disabled and neurodiverse colleagues – and how the University intends to do more on disability.

Dear colleagues,

As a university, we are an organisation committed to ensuring that everyone can be themselves at work and give their best. Indeed, our purpose as outlined in our strategic plan, is ‘We act together, using our collective skills and diversity, to deliver a better world through the transformational power of quality education and research.’

Yet the pandemic has highlighted some specific issues for disabled and neurodiverse people, making it particularly timely to start conversations now.

Disability and the pandemic

There is broad evidence to indicate that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the physical and mental health of disabled people and that this story has largely gone untold. At the start of the pandemic, the narrative was that the virus ‘only’ affected older people and those with ‘underlying health conditions’. Yet, death rates among those registered as disabled are higher than the non-disabled but their story has been largely ignored.

Moreover, as a result of the government’s response to the pandemic, there have been substantive changes in legislation that have affected directly the lives of disabled people and their families. For example, in March, the government introduced temporary legislation to allow local authorities to reduce the support they must legally provide to disabled people or people with care needs. Emergency legislation also released local authorities from their legal obligation to provide educational provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.  This has meant that throughout the lockdown, many families of disabled children have been left with little, if any, support for their children.

There is also strong evidence to suggest that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the well-being of disabled people. An ONS report in September reported that 41% of disabled people felt that the pandemic had had a negative impact on their mental health compared to 20% for non-disabled people. These are deeply worrying figures.

Understanding the working experience of our disabled and neurodiverse colleagues during the pandemic can help inform our thinking and practices as we consider our ways of working.  For some colleagues with disabilities who may have been refused the ability to work at home in the past, the irony that most colleagues can work reasonably effectively at home, is not lost on them.  Last summer, the Staff Disability Network published findings from our community that highlighted the range of experiences of working remotely. For some, travel to the office can be difficult and the office environment not always accommodating (both for physical and invisible disabilities). This means that working from home for them has been more productive. Similarly, for colleagues with chronic health conditions, being able to work flexibly may have boosted productivity and general well-being. However, others have found that the home workspace does not support their physical needs.

As a university, now and beyond the pandemic, we want to create a working environment where all colleagues, regardless of their disability or neurodiversity can flourish and contribute fully to our university endeavour. It is important therefore to really listen to the varied experiences to understand what works, how and why.

University Priorities for Disability and Neurodiversity

Disability Confident logoAllán has already outlined disability and neurodiversity as one of his key priorities. Currently 73% of colleagues who declared whether or not they have a disability, via Employee Self Service data collected by HR. Almost a third have chosen not to disclose with one of the main reasons likely to be the lack of confidence in others’ understanding. This has to change.

We know that we must be guided in this area by those with lived experience; the Staff Disability Network, set up in 2017, is actively helping us be more inclusive and ensure that the disabled and neurodivergent people have a voice at the University of Reading.

In the past year, we have set up the Disability and Neurodiversity Action Plan Group. The Group is chaired by Allán and Susan Thornton, Assistant Director of HR (with representation from the Staff Disability Network and RUSU). The three top priorities are:

  1. Raising awareness of invisible disabilities; the successful Launch of the Sunflower Lanyard scheme at the University of Reading is one example
  2. Designing and implementing the Tailored Adjustment Plan which is a record of workplace adjustments agreed between an employee and their line manager, for better transparency on actions taken to improve working conditions; and
  3. Taking forward the strategic actions  for Level 1 - Committed Employer for the Government's Disability Confident Scheme, to help us make the most of the talents of all our colleagues. The University received Level 1 status on the 2 February 2021.

We are proud that all internal staff and potential external candidates will see that the University is a Disability Committed Employer and therefore, we have committed to an inclusive and accessible recruitment process, anticipating and providing reasonable adjustments, and supporting any employee who acquires a disability or long-term health condition to stay in work. Further information on the scheme is accessible here: Disability Confident Scheme

What next?

We will be providing more information soon about how you can record your experiences and learning about disability and neurodiversity.

In the meantime, you can take action now to learn more and support your colleagues.

For more information or to comment, email us at diversity@reading.ac.uk

Kind regards,

Elizabeth and Allán

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