Disability December

One of the nine protected characteristics that we consider under the remit of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is disability. As we begin Disability December I wanted to use this blog to highlight some of the issues and challenges that we need to consider as we continue to develop our support for disabled staff and students.

The first thing to recognise when it comes to disability is that all experiences of disability are different. Some people may experience a temporary disability, which, with appropriate treatment and recovery, enables them to return to their normal ways of working or studying. But for others, the impact of a disability can be longer term or permanent. People may come to study or work at the University with a disability, or a disability may develop whilst they are here. We need to ensure that these diverse experiences are all considered in anything we do to support those with disability. 

As a human factors professional, I have been taught to recognise the impact of the way we design our physical and organisational environment on the experience of all. And it is this perspective that really makes my second point clear to me – that, no matter what the type or severity of disability, when you are disabled, things feel harder and, usually, they are harder. 

Consider the sorts of expectations we have for many colleagues within the University – we ask you to attend meetings in different locations, to act as external ambassadors for the University, or to be leaders in their research discipline or profession. If you have a disability that impairs your physical movement, managing multiple meetings in a single day is harder. This probably means that you will plan your day differently, perhaps not taking on so many activities in different locations. This might mean that it takes longer to be recognised, or to feel that you have built up enough experience to have a senior leadership role. 

Similarly, for students, we encourage participation in activities run by the Students’ Union, or engagement with the Nottingham Advantage award. We need to recognise that those with disabilities may find these extremely valuable additional activities more difficult to engage with, and think about the support we can provide to ensure that we take these matters into account.

Thirdly, the notion of disability encompasses both our physical and mental health – seen and unseen disabilities. The challenge here is that many of us who work with and support students or colleagues who are experiencing disability as a result of their physical or mental health are not experts. 

Therefore, it is vital that we are able to work together with colleagues including those in Welfare, Occupational Health, Student Services, Campus Life, Human Resources to ensure those with disabilities have the right support. The complexity of our organisation as well as the diversity in types of disability experienced by our students and staff may make this particularly difficult, so much of my work in my first three months in post has been to understand how these different units, with their excellent professional expertise, can be linked together as effectively as possible.

Disability December offers a series of events that provide support for those with disability, highlight disability issues and celebrate the achievements of people with disabilities. You can find out more about the full range of activities here, including workshops on supporting colleagues with hidden disabilities and mental health in the workplace; inclusive fitness and climbing wall sessions at the David Ross Sports Village; and an opportunity to see and learn more about the inspiring Able Orchestra.

The Trent Building will be lit purple in recognition of the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3rd December, and the University is announcing the conferment of an honorary degree to actor and Mencap campaigner Sarah Gordy MBE – the first person with Down’s Syndrome to be recognised by the University in this way.

I must also extend my congratulations to our own Emily Smith, who is celebrated this week in The Guardian’s Learning Disability and Autism Leaders’ List 2018, for her vital role in educating student nurses in the University’s School of Health Sciences, offering invaluable insight into living with Down’s syndrome and her own experiences of healthcare.

One of the most transformative events in terms of national attitudes towards disability was the 2012 Paralympics, and we are still seeing the fantastic legacy from this high profile event in disability sport. Our disability sport here at Nottingham is world-class, under the outstanding leadership of Hannah Webber & Sam Bell-Minogue and we are celebrating this in Disability December too.

Currently only 3% of staff have disclosed a disability, which suggests considerable but understandable under-reporting and we need to understand why this is the case. It may be that we are not giving sufficient confidence to staff that if a disability is disclosed then we will make reasonable adjustments to help them in their work. It may be that staff fear that disclosing a disability will cause them to be judged, or treated in a way that they do not like. It may be that our recruitment advertising and processes are not sufficiently inclusive to encourage more applications from people with disabilities. 

In the new calendar year, I will be helping to review and revise our support for staff and students with disabilities. A new review into the support the University offers to staff with disabilities will aim to identify what support is in place, find out how easy it is to access this support, and make suggestions as to how we can ensure that the support we provide is as good as it can be. I will also ensure that we continue to press home the implementation of two reviews that took place earlier this year relating to disabled student provision.

As with so much of the University’s current work to deliver equality, diversity and inclusion, there is much good practice in supporting people with disabilities, but it can be further improved, better co-ordinated and uniformly applied to ensure we can make the most of the talents in our institution, wherever they are found. Whatever else you have planned for December, I do hope you can all take some time to celebrate and learn more about supporting people with disabilities.


Professor Sarah Sharples
Pro Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

3 December 2018

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Trent Building
University Park Campus