Reasonable adjustments, Access to Work and disabled staff

We are two disabled members of staff at a UK university, both involved in an ESRC funded research project called ‘Getting Things Changed’. In our research we are trying to understand the way in which social practices can disable people, and how we can build on that understanding to question and to change practices which get stuck. Our particular strand of this work focuses on the academy itself, since we know that universities are rife with problems for disabled staff and students, and we are of course implicated in those practices. In this blog post, we pose the question: is ‘Access to Work’ the solution for disabled employees? ‘Access to Work’ is the name of a UK government funded scheme which claims to support disabled people to stay in work by “providing practical and financial support” (pg 1, 2017). In theory, costs for such support are divided between the employer and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

In the context of our research within universities, we have found that Access to Work is certainly not a bed of roses. The experience of disabled staff within the University navigating the scheme in order to obtain materials, resources and adaptations to buildings, is collectively identified as problematic by disabled staff at the University where we work. Neither is its availability nor the range of resources or support that it covers widely publicised to disabled staff. For instance, one of us is a woman, with various long-term conditions, working as a Research Associate on an ESRC funded project (‘Getting Things Changed’) and was unaware that Access to Work could fund a job coach to help her at work or could fund counselling for staff with mental health conditions (DWP 2017).

Disabled university staff we interviewed as part of our research described how they were left to navigate the lengthy and complex process alone, with little or no support from their employer. Instead, individual staff used the Staff Disability Forum (SDF) which disabled staff had instituted within our university as a group for peer support and collective action for positive change. This enabled them to share their difficulties and gain advice and support from each other. The SDF has become a hub where disabled staff share their experiences and give each other advice, in particular about the existence of and access to the “Access to Work” scheme. Several staff shared that they did not know what the scheme covered until another disabled staff member told them:

“…I actually got more advice and help from members of the Disabled Staff Forum. Because I didn’t even know what I could apply for from some of those things, or what was relevant. What’s the employer’s obligation? Like, I didn’t even know that. You know, what is the employer’s obligation? What can I ask for from Access to Work? And so I did draw on the experience of people, other people, in order to sort of decipher that…”

As Sang (2017) suggests, such forums can, and do, act to facilitate the full integration of disabled staff into the structure of their organisation. However, by leaving disabled staff members to organise themselves and support each other to navigate through these systems themselves, there is a danger that the institution reinforces the notion of the disabled staff member as a “problem.” Although peer support is vital and at the heart of good practice, it can also generate problems, since it can reinforce the experience of only finding support from other disabled people, rather than enacting equality among persons with any variety of physical, mental health, and learning profiles. Forcing disabled staff to rely heavily if not exclusively on their own user-led groups, due to the lack of integrated support across an organisation, also reproduces and reinforces the structure of ableism—value determined by achievement—which could be said to be inherently discriminatory and disadvantageous to disabled people. A more equitable approach would recognise that all employees require a differentiated approach to their employment.

The organisation of the University into Faculties, Schools and Centres and the division of its budget further complicates the process. For example, if a disabled staff member is employed on a research contract, whose budget covers the University’s contribution to resources or adaptations? Disabled staff members reported their reliance upon having a supportive, informed and responsive line manager to support them through the process. Once the “Access to Work” grant has been made it becomes the responsibility of the individual staff member to administer their claim. This may involve managing the timesheets of support workers, submitting monthly claims and dealing with lengthy queries from the DWP regarding these claims. One disabled staff member suggested that:

“…I spend about three days a week – three full-time days a week – arranging my own travel, booking it all, researching it, filing my university claims – because everything has to be claimed through the university first – and then the Access to Work claim.Each one is a three-stage process…”

Another reported that their application was still being processed after 2 years.

These experiences raise so many questions for universities who champion policies that seek to “widen participation” and “include” disabled students and staff alike. Similar to the experience in the U.S. described by Franke et al. (2012), in UK higher education there is a discrepancy in the provision of support for disabled staff at universities compared with disabled students. However, looking at the experience of both disabled staff and disabled students within the University there is a shared sense of having to navigate organisational systems alone.

What is clear is that the University is not designed for disabled staff or students to easily fit in. This is a wider issue that is reflective of the ableist ideals of the neo-liberal society in which universities operate. Solutions instead seem to lie in the direction of firstly helping decision-makers become more aware of the value of identifying and making the most of all staff members’ potential, and secondly educating staff about the basic principles of equality which actually make for a more flexible and creative workforce.

Finally, our project suggests that the most important thing is to shift models of value away from simply medical diagnoses of difference to a social model (Oliver 2013). A medical model focuses on the individual member of staff as a potential problem to be fixed, a rather prevalent attitude we have found in the university. By contrast, a social model approach would turn attention instead onto the structural issues and exclusionary practices which have become embedded and ‘naturalised’ in universities, in such a way that we often do not even perceive them. It is only by uncovering and questioning these practices that organisations may begin to tackle the power imbalances between senior and junior staff. Higher Education Institutions ought, we suggest, to be at the forefront of helping turn this vision into reality, helping transform social structures through greater understanding. To do this we need to continue the work of research, practical policy development, and improvement of organisational processes by testing policy against lived experience and revising it. In addition, we must consistently make the case for the incalculable value of the full person in all his or her variety to a society and a world facing challenges like never before.


Department for Work and Pensions (2017). Access to Work. Department for Work and Pensions. Available from: Accessed 24/8/2017.

Franke, A.H., Berube, M.F., O’Neil, R.M., Kurland, J.E. (2012). Accommodating Faculty members who have a Disability. Report from Sub-Committee of Academic Freedom and Tenure

Oliver, M. (2013). The social model of disability: thirty years on. Disability & Society, 28(7): 1024-26.

Sang, K. (2017). Disability and Academic careers. Herriot Watt University: Edinburgh

About the Author

Wendy Merchant

Wendy is a Research Associate in the School for Policy Studies at Bristol University and also a disability activist. Stephen is a disability activist and a scholar of Latin language and literature and Medieval Studies.

Stephen D’Evelyn

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