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Disability Equality Framework 2021

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1.     Context and Purpose of the Disability Equality Framework

This Disability Equality Framework sets out our broad commitments and vision for progressing disability equality and inclusion at the University for 2021-24. This Framework is one of a series of sub-frameworks focused on progressing specific areas of equality, which derive from and align with our overarching Equality and Inclusion (E&I) Framework 2020-25 and our University Strategy 2020-2030: Universal Values, Global Change. Throughout the development of this Disability Equality Framework we have consulted with key stakeholders and we are very grateful to all those who contributed to the process. This Framework has benefited in particular from the academic expertise of the University of Leeds Centre for Disability Studies, an international leader in the field of disability research for many decades. Please see the E&I Unit Framework consultation process webpage for a full list of stakeholders.

Alongside this Framework will be a specific and detailed action plan aimed at improving and enhancing disability equality and inclusion. The associated action plan will set out SMART prioritised objectives with explicit targets, ownership and delivery dates, wherever possible. We will regularly review and report on progress via the Equality and Inclusion Governance structure.

At the University of Leeds, our values of inclusiveness, integrity, community, professionalism and academic excellence are at the heart of everything we do. Our Equality & Inclusion (E&I) Framework demonstrates our commitment to creating a University community where every individual is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their protected characteristics, and is part of a working and learning environment free from barriers. We are progressing with our efforts to advance equality for all prospective and current students and staff to ensure that they are attracted to the University, feel part of our community and have every opportunity to maximise their potential.

The aim of our Disability Equality Framework is to ensure that all disabled people feel welcome, included and supported to achieve their ambitions at our University. Embedding this aim into our culture, strategies, priorities, structures, systems and processes is essential. Progress will be formally evaluated and monitored through the E&I Governance structure.

The University of Leeds supports the social model of disability. This rights-based approach proposes that disability is primarily a form of institutional discrimination and social exclusion and not the product of physical difference between individuals (sometimes referred to as the individual or medical model of disability). In this Framework ‘disabled people’ refers to individuals who have impairments (for example, long-term physical, mental, intellectual, sensory or those associated with neurodiversity) which, in interaction with various barriers within the social environment, may hinder full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006). Please see more information and resources about disability support for staff and disability support for students at the University.

We acknowledge that every disabled person’s lived experience is unique. An individual does not need to have a formal ‘diagnosis’ to identify as disabled and someone with a diagnosed disability may not identify or define themselves as ‘disabled’. Two individuals with the same condition may have some similar experiences but they are also likely to experience their disability very differently due to the influence of a range of factors. These factors may include: the context of their social, educational or employment environment; the impact of the disability on their daily life (and how this is influenced by the context); whether they were born with or acquired their disability; any other impairments / conditions; whether their disability is outwardly visible to others or has few outward visible signs (many disabled people may experience a combination of these); other aspects of their identity and how they choose to identify with these personal characteristics or not.

The interaction between identity, characteristics and type(s) of impairments creates additional complexities when considering how to reduce barriers and increase inclusion for disabled people. Our approach to disability equality recognises that discrimination is complex and multifaceted. An individual might experience barriers related to multiple aspects of their identity at the same time or in isolation and this can exacerbate the discrimination and marginalisation they might experience. For example, Black British women are more likely to experience common mental health issues than White British women (Ethnicity facts and, 2017). Despite this, White people are more likely to receive treatment for mental health issues than people from Black Asian and ethnically diverse backgrounds (Rethink Mental Illness, 2020). To meet the needs of our disabled staff and students we must take account of how intersectionality impacts on their experience.

The commitments included in this Framework will also help to increase accessibility and inclusion for everyone, not just because we could all acquire some type of disability in our lifetimes but because all of our lives are improved by accessible and inclusive services. Everyone benefits when we consider how to maximise access and inclusion for all, regardless of ability or circumstance.


1.1  Higher Education and Disabled People

We have a moral obligation to ensure equal access and inclusion for disabled students and staff. As a Higher Education Institution (HEI) we are also bound by the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 (EA) as they apply to the protected characteristic of disability.

Under the Equality Act, a person is considered to have a disability “if they have a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities” (Equality Act 2010). Section 149 of the Equality Act (the Public Sector Equality Duty) requires the University as a public body, in carrying out its functions, to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it.

The Equality Act allows for a disabled person to be treated more favourably than a non-disabled person and as an employer and as a service provider we recognise that we have a duty to take reasonable steps to, as far as possible, remove or reduce any disadvantage faced by a disabled person in relation to a provision, criterion, practice, physical feature or provision of an auxiliary aid. Where possible, we must act to anticipate barriers so that all disabled people can successfully access and/or navigate all aspects of the University. We must adopt an equitable approach that allows for treating disabled people differently (compared to a non-disabled person) so we can support equality for all. We seek to help our students and staff to understand our moral and legal duty to support disabled people and help them to adopt this equitable and anticipatory approach.

We acknowledge that we have much work to do to be able to achieve the social model approach we aspire to create in practice. We are committed to providing the support, adjustments and cultural change necessary for the development of an inclusive environment for all students and staff. Please see more information and resources about disability support for staff and disability support for students at the University.


1.2 Adapting to Change

The impact of Covid-19 in 2020-21 has demonstrated that we must be flexible in our approach and prepared to adapt to unexpected change. Lessons can be learned from the way institutions and individuals have successfully adapted to the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, and some of this learning can be applied directly to the way we support disabled people in future. Concerns about a return to campus for disabled people are being carefully considered and managed to prioritise health and avoid direct or indirect discrimination (Disabled Students’ Commission, 2020, National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN), 2020).

We can take advantage of this opportunity to create long-term cultural changes by identifying successful adaptations made during the pandemic that can be incorporated and maintained as part of our usual ways of working; for example adopting remote working as a standard working arrangement. The University is committed to involving disabled students and staff in reviewing and reimagining access to teaching, learning, and the workplace, and identifying and mitigating any potential longer-term impacts. Please see more information about the University's equality impact assessment of Covid-19.


1.3 Data Monitoring

We have a legal requirement to monitor and publish data as part of the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) of the Equality Act 2010 (EA)*. We acknowledge that disability-related data could generate tension between an individual model and a social model approach. However, collecting and then analysing such data allows us to identify any disproportionate representation and disparities of experience and is necessary to inform our priorities and actions. Monitoring data enables us to track the impact of our actions to advance disability equality for our staff and students.

We rely on students and staff sharing this personal information, and we recognise that this information is currently incomplete; For example, in 2020/21 16% of staff did not ‘disclose’ their disability status (a 2% decrease in non-disclosure overall since 2018). The reasons for low disability-related data rates are complex, but may include a lack of understanding as to why this information is important and how it might be used to improve support for disabled students and staff. It could also be because of a perception that disclosure might lead to negative impacts and stigmatisation, particularly if the individual has had negative experiences of sharing personal information in the past.

Commitments made in this Framework will seek to increase understanding about barriers related to equality data collection. We also recognise that there could be individuals who will not wish to share their personal characteristics with the University which is why it is crucial that we are proactive and anticipatory in our approach to supporting our disabled community. Please see a summary of the University student and staff disability data 2020/21.


*When collecting equality data from our students and staff as part of our Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) requirements, a person is considered to have a disability according to the definition under the Equality Act 2010, “if they have a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.


1.4 Governance

The University’s equality and inclusion governance structure creates a clear reporting line to the University Executive Group and University Council. An Equality & Inclusion Delivery Group is tasked with the delivery of actions that will create positive change and have significant impact across the organisation. This group reports to the Equality & Inclusion Board (chaired by the Vice-Chancellor) which oversees all inclusion work across the University to ensure it is embedded throughout. Further information on the governance arrangements can be found in the University’s E&I Framework (2020-25) and on the E&I Unit Equality and Inclusion Governance webpage.


2.  Framework Development

The Disability Equality Framework structure aligns with the key themes of the University’s Equality and Inclusion Framework 2020-25: culture, students, staff, research and infrastructure. Many of the commitments set out within this Framework are supported by current policies, practices, services, activities, programmes and projects but we acknowledge that there is still much work to be done to achieve our mission of creating a culture where all disabled people feel safe, welcome, valued and included at our University. We will work actively with our students, staff, and local community, including our disabled people, to deliver an action plan of targeted activity to ensure that the commitments in this Framework are supported, delivered and achieved.

2.1 Changing the Culture and Behaviours

We are committed to embedding equality and inclusion into all aspects of University life, to develop and promote a diverse University-wide culture in which students and staff from all backgrounds have a strong sense of belonging and can work creatively to achieve their own and the University’s ambitions. A diverse community benefits everyone, expanding the richness of thought and experience across the University.

Initiatives such as the Inclusive Learning and Teaching Project demonstrate how an institutional approach to embedding inclusivity can change habits and behaviours over time to benefit not only disabled students but students from a wide range of educational, social and linguistic backgrounds. We recognise that the approach to creating an inclusive culture and accessible environment must be holistic. If staff feel a sense of belonging this will help create a sense of belonging for students and vice versa. If staff feel empowered to identify as disabled this may help students to also identify as disabled and vice versa. This culture of openness can help to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all our students and staff.

We will:

  • Create a culture that anticipates and accommodates the needs of disabled people, where requests for individual reasonable adjustments are welcomed and treated positively.
  • Establish reporting mechanisms that avoid placing unnecessary burden and additional stress on the individuals reporting incidents of harassment and discrimination.
  • Identify, acknowledge and address any barriers to reporting harassment, then raise awareness of the reporting mechanisms, encouraging reporting and investigating/responding appropriately to reports. This includes establishing appropriate reporting outcome protocols and ensuring incidents/reports of disability discrimination and harassment are monitored and summarised on a regular basis.
  • Offer mental health and wellbeing services to students and staff who experience marginalisation or discrimination, in recognition of the potential impact of stress and associated trauma resulting from these experiences.
  • Actively encourage and seek involvement from disabled people and relevant academic, research and professional disability specialists at the University when reviewing current policies and services and when designing new ones.
  • Support the development of University working, teaching, study and research practices and communications which are accessible, inclusive, non-discriminatory, create a sense of belonging and where possible promote positive attitudes and celebrate the diversity of our disabled population. We will work with Leeds University Union, trade unions, staff networks and other relevant groups to ensure disabled students and staff are represented and listened to when making these improvements.
  • Build an environment of trust and confidence among our disabled students and staff. We will not rely on our disabled community to take responsibility for creating this environment but expect every individual to play their part, with senior leadership setting an example for the whole University community and leading support for this culture change.
  • Be proactive in communicating and creating opportunities for the whole University community to learn about the importance of disability awareness, dismantling ablest attitudes and practices
  • Promote the responsibility that we all have as individuals for creating an inclusive work and study environment.
  • Aim to meet the needs of all disabled students and staff by considering intersectional issues and designing effective services that target the barriers experienced by specific groups when multiple characteristics intersect.
  • Create opportunities to increase our understanding about the types of barriers that disabled students and staff encounter at the University to help us develop targeted action and ensure that we are meeting the needs of disabled students and staff, and can track the impact of our actions.
  • Increase outreach and proactively create more opportunities for expanding the proportion of disabled students and staff applying to study and work here.
  • Work in partnership across the region with Leeds City Council, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust (LTHT), other HEIs, employers, disability specialists, external supported employment schemes and suppliers to share best practice and promote disability equality.


2.2  Developing Staff and the Working Environment

We are committed to embedding disability equality and inclusion in the way we attract, develop, retain and support staff to thrive in their careers and achieve their ambitions. To fully meet the needs of our disabled staff we must seek to understand how the intersectionality of different identities can lead to different experiences of discrimination and ensure our actions are responsive to this. For example, in the UK in 2020 54% of disabled women were in employment, compared with 78% of non-disabled women (Women’s Budget Group, 2020).

Our process for providing support and adjustments for disabled staff must be successful in practice, and we are aware that there is work to do to improve this provision and are committed to making these reforms.  The processes put in place to support disabled staff must not put unnecessary burden on individual disabled colleagues. We recognise that support and adjustment processes that are not efficient, consistent and successfully applied in practice, can cause unnecessary distress for disabled colleagues.

Work is already underway by the HR Specialist Service Team to actively attract a more diverse pool of applicants to the University, and to better understand any potential barriers preventing individuals from applying, including disabled people. We understand that investment in equality and inclusion training opportunities for staff may be one approach to raise awareness, advance behavioural change and reinforce expectations about the environment we wish to achieve. We have mandatory online E&I training for all staff, complemented by the delivery of face-to-face E&I training. The University has supported the provision of targeted training for HR managers (e.g. ‘Disability Support in the Workplace’, ‘Autism Awareness’ and ‘Sensory Awareness’ sessions). However, we recognise that this type of training is currently not available University-wide. We know there is further work to do to create a working environment in which all disabled staff feel safe, welcome, valued and included.

We will:

  • Aim for prospective disabled candidates to envision themselves at Leeds, remove barriers in the recruitment process and improve the induction process.
  • Ensure that line managers and HR managers understand and consistently act on their legal duty to support disabled applicants and staff.
  • Improve the reasonable adjustments process to ensure that this is anticipatory, proactive, effective, applied consistently and provides a positive experience for disabled staff.
  • Raise awareness of Access to Work and the range of adjustments, adaptations, support and services (including the Occupational Health and Staff Counselling and Psychological Support Service) available for disabled staff. Continually review our staff development offer and promotion schemes, aiming for them to be inclusive for disabled staff.
  • Aim to meet the needs of all disabled staff by considering intersectional issues and designing effective services that target the barriers experienced by specific groups when multiple characteristics intersect.
  • Aim to improve the positive impact of University policies and practices on disabled staff and listen to our disabled staff as part of the formal process of evaluating and driving continuous improvement.
  • Aim to expand the disability awareness training provision across the University and take all reasonable steps for this type of training to be co-designed, developed and / or delivered with or by disabled people.
  • Empower disabled staff to thrive, progress and develop their careers by supporting the retention of disabled staff (particularly for staff following the onset of an impairment or a longer term health condition), aiming to reduce the disability employment gap and increasing the proportion of our workforce who are disabled.
  • Continue our commitment to providing support for working carers, including those caring for disabled people, and identify opportunities to improve this provision.


2.3 Supporting Students and Student Education

Guidance from the Disabled Students Sector Leadership Group (DSSLG) in 2017 called for HEIs to move to an increased focus on inclusive teaching and learning. Work is ongoing to develop the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment to ensure that learning is meaningful, relevant and accessible to all. The Inclusive Learning and Teaching project and the introduction of Institutional Baseline Standards for Inclusive Learning and Teaching has supported faculties to embed practices to enhance inclusivity and minimise barriers to student engagement and access. School Academic Leads for Inclusive Practice (SALIPs) raise awareness of these standards and support faculties to share good practice.

The University Access and Participation Plan includes specific targets that focus on improving continuation, attainment and progression for disabled students / postgraduate researchers (PGRs). The plan highlights the University’s performance across the student lifecycle and shows that the gap between non-continuation, attainment and progression outcomes for disabled and non-disabled undergraduate students has decreased at the University compared with the sector over the last 5 years (University Access and Participation Plan, 2020, p.7).

There are numerous targeted activities at the University supporting this work and Disability Services are a valuable part of the educational engagement programme (Widening Participation Annual Report). Over recent years this service has transformed the support for disabled students / PGRs, introducing reforms that provide a dedicated route into the service, through significant awareness raising and in-course support, the results of which are reflected in the increase of disabled students from 9% in 2011/12 to 15% in 2020/21 (E&I Unit Student Data). Disabled students input directly into the practices, processes and provisions of Disability Services via the Disability Services Student Panel, a forum of service staff, disabled students / PGRs.

The University is reimagining the way we engage with students and we have accelerated our efforts to deliver online learning and support, remove barriers to continuation to second year, and altered pre-entry requirements. The University Access and Student Success Strategy 2025 sets out ambitious long-term goals that seek to eliminate inequalities at all student taught and postgraduate research levels across the four pillars of the student lifecycle: Access, Continuation, Attainment and Progression. Avoiding a deficit model is at the heart of the strategy: systemic issues are to blame for inequalities in outcomes, not our students. We will examine the full student lifecycle and work to embed equality and inclusion to meet the needs of all disabled students/ PGRs whilst also considering the varied experiences of different types of impairments, including the potential for additional challenges when multiple characteristics intersect.

We will:

  • Aim for prospective disabled students / PGRs to envision themselves at Leeds and gain a place.
  • Focus on evidence-based outreach, evolve our admissions policies and provide flexible learning opportunities to support opportunities for disabled students / PGRs.
  • Encourage opportunities for our disabled students / PGRs to be heard, understood and supported to complete their studies.
  • Seek to ensure all our disabled students / PGRs have access to, and proactively receive, the support that they need.
  • Develop an in-depth understanding of the diverse needs of our disabled students / PGRs, through learning analytics, then seek to tailor student support at all levels of study to accommodate disabled students and support smooth transitions throughout the student journey.
  • Value our disabled students and PGRs and enable them to thrive academically to achieve their full potential.
  • Aim to meet the needs of all disabled students / PGRs by considering intersectional issues and designing effective services that target the barriers experienced by specific groups when multiple characteristics intersect.
  • Continue to design our curriculum to enhance accessibility and inclusion for all disabled students / PGRs, continue to embed University-wide inclusive teaching and learning, and provide fair opportunities for attainment at postgraduate level.
  • Aim to expand the disability awareness training provision for staff who are designing and delivering student education across the University and take all reasonable steps for this type of training to be co-designed, developed, and / or delivered with and / or by disabled people.
  • Support disabled students / PGRs to be active decision makers about their future, provide diverse and equitable employability opportunities, accelerate efforts to progress disabled students to postgraduate study, continue to provide tailored career advice and support for disabled students / PGRs, and ensure our alumni services are accessible and inclusive.
  • Instil a culture that prioritises access, success and fosters a sense of belonging for disabled students / PGRs.
  • Listen to our disabled students / PGRs via relevant groups and channels (for example the Disability Services Student Panel) and consistently evaluate our work to drive continuous improvement.


2.4 Developing an Inclusive Research Culture

The University is committed to developing and implementing an inclusive research culture and environment. We will be led by the Research and Innovation Board (RIB) to implement an inclusive and accessible approach to research that includes a specific focus on enhancing the culture for disabled students and staff.

We will:

  • Encourage researchers in all research areas and disciplines to consider the impact of their research for disability equality and improved social outcomes, and to lead progress on achieving disability equality within the University and beyond.
  • Ensure that our research meets the highest standards: to provide an inclusive research culture and environment for disabled researchers; to ensure that research is as inclusive of disabled people as possible; and to work responsibly with disabled research participants.
  • Strengthen our equality and inclusion work at postgraduate research level through the coordinating work of the Doctoral College, to address unequal access, explore the impact of curriculums and teaching on the student experience, review support available from application to enrolment, and review progression and reward opportunities for disabled postgraduates.
  • Support managers and supervisors of disabled research staff and / or students aligned to our Concordat action plan.
  • Ensure disabled researchers have equitable access to support for research and innovation development.


2.5 Providing an Accessible Infrastructure

The University has made significant progress to enhance the accessibility and usability of our information technology (IT), communication, digital platforms and physical infrastructure. Through the Equality Access Project, the Estates and Facilities team have made equality of access a top consideration in the planning of new buildings and have made improvements to the accessibility of existing areas of campus. The work of the Digital Education Service supports the development of digital education systems and Digital Practice resources support colleagues to enrich the education experience for our students. The Digital Transformation strategy will support the future development of digital technologies, data and digital approaches to reduce inequalities and reform the potential of digital technology to increase flexible and inclusive ways of learning and working across the University.

We will:

  • Aim to create an accessible physical infrastructure for all, providing remedial action for existing barriers and taking anticipatory action to enhance the accessibility and usability of the physical estate and campus facilities.
  • Remove inequalities in IT systems, digital information, communication services and operational activity and embed an anticipatory approach into future strategic commitments in these areas.
  • Ensure that incremental and transformational activities to improve our digital infrastructure incorporate inclusive and accessible approaches to enhance ways of working for disabled staff and educational opportunities for disabled students.


3.  Initial Priorities

The E&I Delivery Group have identified 4 initial priorities:

  • Review the staff adjustments process to identify areas for improvement.
  • Foster a sense of belonging and provide a supportive, inclusive culture for disabled students and staff.
  • In recognition that reported mental health conditions have risen significantly in recent years (in comparison to other impairments) ensure that reasonable adjustments and relevant support are available to meet this growing need.
  • Improve physical and digital access to University buildings and services. Ensuring that the move toward digitisation is inclusive and accessible and does not create barriers to information or communication.