Day of Action – Report
Wednesday 21 November 2018 saw the UK’s first ever Day of Action for Disability Equality in Education. Mike Lambert reports back.
The event brought together trade unions, disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), teachers and students for a programme of activities around the country. In the evening, it culminated in a lively and well-attended reception inside the Houses of Parliament, hosted by Marsha de Cordova MP, Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions, Disabled People.
The driving force behind the day was Elaine Heffernan: a former student counsellor in further education and now chair of University and College Union’s (UCU) committee of Disabled members. She described how the idea came to her during the National Disabled People’s Summit in November 2017 where she attended a workshop on inclusive education co-run by Tara Flood from ALLFIE and Richard Rieser from World of Inclusion. “Someone at that workshop made a throwaway suggestion about having a national day of action”, she explained, “and I went straightaway and wrote a motion to my NEC.”
Heffernan’s commitment to inclusive education comes from her own experiences as a Disabled Student Counsellor and through her involvement with UCU. Like so many other teachers and education professionals, she found herself having to battle with her employer in order to obtain essential reasonable adjustments. “Too often, employers don’t seem to understand that, if you request reasonable adjustments, it’s because you seriously do need them – and they’re not just some icing on a cake that you can either choose to make a fuss about or not.” Heffernan sees a clear connection between such failures to adequately support staff and the fact that, “Disability has now taken over as the main equality area receiving legal casework support within UCU”.
Following her attendance at the Disabled People’s Summit, Heffernan held meetings with UCU colleagues, activists from other relevant trade unions and DPOs, to form a coalition of organisations keen to participate in such an event. At the same time, she contacted office Marsha de Cordova MP’s office to explore the possibility of hosting a Parliamentary Reception.
Ahead of the day, participants identified four key demands:
- Time limits for the implementation of reasonable adjustments;
- A review of building regulations to ensure they meet the accessibility needs of Disabled people;
- A statutory right to disability leave;
- The right for Disabled people to access mainstream education and a reversal of cuts to SEND provision.
On the day, around 30 universities and colleges staged some sort of action. These ranged from small, “know your rights” and networking meetings, to larger, more dramatic events. At the University of Liverpool, which has a particularly poor record of providing access to students and staff with mobility impairments, there was a rally jointly organised by disabled students and members of UCU. To illustrate their point, protesters barricaded inaccessible areas of the campus, using the same coloured tape that police employ to cordon off a crime scene. As a result of these actions in Liverpool, management have now approached the local UCU branch to discuss improvements to accessibility in their buildings.
At the University of Cambridge, a full day of activities kicked off with the release of a report on wheelchair and step-free access around its component colleges, entitled “To Boldly Go Where Everyone else Has Gone Before”. The author was Emrys Travis, the local student union Disabled Students’ Officer who explained: “The vast majority of the colleges don’t actually have a clue how inaccessible they are… Putting out that report in the morning, I thought nobody’s going to care, because it’s very easy for people to ignore these sorts of things. But, actually, so many people read it. Lots of people were messaging me and it was exciting to see that people had hooked onto it and cared about the issue.”
At Cambridge, the day’s activities focused on trying to build staff-student networks and included: a “know your rights” session; a bring-your-own lunch, where staff and students had an opportunity to socialise; and an Art for Mental Health event in the evening. Cambridge students also joined a vigil outside the town hall organised by Disabled People Against Cuts, where candles were lit in memory of those who’ve died as a result of benefit reforms.
At the University of Sheffield, the local UCU branch prepared a written briefing for all its members, and there was a lecture and other events based on disability equality in education and Disability History Month. The Further Education sector was also well represented, with events at many colleges, including Newcastle, Cambridge Regional, Halesowen, New City and Lewisham Southwark.
The Parliamentary Reception took place in Committee Room 10 in the House of Commons, and was attended by around 80 people. First to speak was Marsha de Cordova. The MP expressed her commitment to inclusive education and her continuing gratitude to her mother, who fought successfully to keep Marsha at their local, mainstream school. She was followed by speakers from University and College Union, National Education Union, Trades Union Congress, National Union of Students, Disabled People Against Cuts, World of Inclusion and the Alliance For Inclusive Education.
In addition to Marsha de Cordova, three other MPs attended the reception: Ellen Smith (Labour); Dr Lisa Cameron (SNP, Chair of Health and Social Care Committee); and Tonia Antoniazzi (Labour).
Importantly, this Day of Action served to strengthen bonds between various groups and organisations who all want to see a more inclusive education system but who sometimes approach the issue from different angles. Rachel O’Brien, NUS Disabled Students’ Officer, noted it had been “particularly encouraging and heart-warming to see Disabled students, Disabled staff and their respective unions working together so closely”. Everyone agreed the event had been a great success and that we should continue working together for an even bigger and better Day of Action in 2019.
Simone Aspis, ALLFIE’s Campaigns and Policy Coordinator, said: “I think it’s great that inclusive education is getting such solid and unequivocal support from relevant trade unions. Hopefully, we can now build on this support, make this Day of Action an annual event and, in 2019, all unite behind a single, written manifesto for inclusive education.”