Labour Research May 2016


Addressing the needs of disabled members

What are the top concerns of disabled trade union members? And how are unions ensuring disabled members’ participation in union life? Labour Research finds out.

To coincide with the annual TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference, which takes place in London on 19-20 May, Labour Research asked Britain’s 20 largest TUC-affiliated unions about the top concerns of their disabled members — and what action the unions are taking to address these. 

We also asked unions what action they are taking to involve disabled members in the union. The results are based on responses from 16 unions.

Reasonable adjustments

We asked unions to list the three most important concerns for their disabled members and top of the list, with 10 out of the 16 unions citing this (63%), were issues around “reasonable adjustments”. 

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a positive duty to take reasonable steps to accommodate the disability of a disabled worker in the workplace. 

But retail union Usdaw reported that: “Disabled members are finding it more difficult to negotiate reasonable adjustments and/or retain them, as employers fail to understand that is it sometimes necessary to treat disabled workers more favourably than non-disabled workers.” 

It also said that employers are increasingly reluctant to accept that impairments amount to a disability, particularly if the disability is hidden.

In response to concerns raised by its members, the NUT teachers’ union has produced Making work fit, a document responding to a number of “frequently asked questions” relating to reasonable adjustments in schools. 

Another teaching union, the ATL, has published new guidance providing an overview of the rights of disabled workers in schools and colleges, as well as practical advice for union reps and members on how to achieve equality for disabled staff. 

And the CSP physiotherapists’ union has organised a study day on reasonable adjustments, while the GMB general union has called for compulsory training for managers and supervisors on reasonable adjustments — as well as dealing with the harassment of disabled workers.

Inaccessible workplaces

Actors’ union Equity, the Musicians’ Union (MU), the Prospect specialists‘ union and the RMT rail union, all flagged up the related issue of inaccessibility and inaccessible workplaces. 

The MU, for example, has teamed up with Attitude is Everything, which campaigns to improve deaf and disabled people’s access to live music, to carry out a survey on access to venues. This found that the majority of disabled musicians have lost work due to lack of access, that stages and orchestra pits are often only accessible via stairs, and that rarely -provided “accessible” toilets often double up as store rooms and are therefore not accessible to disabled people. The two organisations are now looking at what can be done to increase opportunities for disabled musicians, focusing particularly on artists’ rights if their access requirements are not met when they are offered performances.

Meanwhile, Equity’s Deaf and Disabled Members’ Committee wants to audit the accessibility of casting spaces. And the union is developing a campaign on inclusive casting to highlight the importance of incidental casting — where disabled people are cast in roles where their impairment is not driving the story. 

Performance management

Another major concern, listed by more than half (nine of the 16 or 56%) of unions in the survey, is being “managed out” through capability procedures, performance management or disciplinary action related to sickness absence. 

For example, Prospect reported that a top concern for its members is discrimination through performance and appraisal systems. It has responded by producing advice and guidance, both for disabled members and members who are line managers. The CSP’s Managing performance resource sheets have a specific section on disability, and the FBU firefighters’ union is currently working on guidance for officials dealing with absence management policies which, it says, are being used to discipline and manage people out of jobs. 

Impact of cuts

Half of the unions in the survey also listed public services and welfare cuts as a top three concern, with several highlighting cuts to the government-funded Access to Work (AtW) scheme. AtW pays for practical support — from computer software to support workers, for disabled people at work. Public services union UNISON said that cuts to the scheme mean that a range of physical adjustments, including some computer software, computer screens and office furniture are no longer provided. 

Instead, employers are now expected to pay for these as “only those adjustments above and beyond what is reasonable for an employer to fund” attract government funding.

Meanwhile, this year’s Scottish TUC Disabled Workers Conference in November will see delegates from the EIS Scottish teachers’ union raising the issue of the impact of cuts to disabled people’s benefits on child poverty. The union has also called for the Scottish Independent Living Fund (ILF) to address the issue of disproportionately low employment rates of disabled people in Scotland.

The RMT said that job cuts disproportionately hit disabled members, particularly ticket office closures which reduce the option of a seated and more secure post. “Members are increasingly expected to be able to stand all day in public-facing roles,” it said.

Among other things, the union has recently stalled plans for ticket office closures by the Govia Thameslink train operating company through a campaign that used “massive online lobbying”. The union has also highlighted the impact of London Underground ticket office closures on disabled employees and disabled service users.

The Unite general union said that it is “working with the whole disability movement” in a wide range of campaigns. These include campaigns on benefit sanctions, cuts to AtW and accessible public transport.

Bullying and harassment

Bullying, harassment, discrimination, intolerance and/or negative attitudes to disabled people is a top three concern for 44% of unions in the survey. 

The CWU communications union reported a “culture of intolerance” by some able-bodied workers who see disabled workers as being given special treatment. This “sometimes turns into harassment or other forms of unreasonable behaviour,” said the union. The Equality Day it holds at its general conference is part of “lots of awareness building” it is currently carrying out. 

The MU pointed to the Creating Without Conflict campaign by the joint Federation of Entertainment Unions as an example of action it is taking. And the UCU has recently revised its Enabling not disabling guide for members and branches on disability discrimination.

Stress and mental health

Mental health issues were listed by five (31%) unions in the survey — teaching unions ATL, EIS and NUT as well as the POA Prison Officers’ Association and Unite. The POA commissioned the University of Bedfordshire to survey its members on work-related stress and wellbeing and launched the findings in parliament. 

Unite said that stress and mental health has been a major issue for the union. Its national industrial committees are organising training and raising awareness on the issue in the workplace. Delegates to the union’s National Disabled Members’ Committee are also raising this issue at their Regional Industrial Committees to ensure that it is on the bargaining agenda.

Usdaw reported that is running a national campaign aimed at raising awareness of mental health problems, tackling stigma and raising awareness of workplace rights, with a focus on the protection afforded by the Equality Act. And the UNISON Cymru-Wales Disabled Members’ Committee is running branch training on mental health issues. 


The ATL listed flexible working as a top three concern for its members, while the GMB listed Remploy sheltered workplaces. Remploy was set up after the Second World War to provide jobs for disabled war veterans and miners. At its peak it employed more than 10,000 people at 94 sites across the UK. However, the previous coalition government closed the last factory in 2013 after a long-running union Save Remploy campaign. The GMB said that this campaign resulted in greater engagement of disabled workers.

Union participation

Our survey also looked at action to ensure that disabled members are able to participate in union activities, structures and decision-making. Most — 14 out of the 16 or 88% of unions in the survey — have a national official with responsibility for disability issues. 

Union National disability official National disability committee Annual disability conference/event
EIS x x
Equity x
FBU x x x
MU x x x
NUT √*
Prospect x** x
RMT *** ***
Usdaw x x

*Dedicated disability officer

**But disability network

***RMT has just agreed a rule change to bring about a national disabled members’ advisory committee and conference

The unions who took part in our survey were: education unions ATL, EIS, NUT and UCU; the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP); the communications CWU union, entertainment unions Equity and the MU; the FBU firefighters’ union; general unions GMB and Unite; the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), specialists’ union Prospect; public services union UNISON; rail union RMT; and retail union USDAW.

In most cases, disability is part of the remit of an equalities officer. But two unions, the NUT and UNISON, have a national official dealing specifically with disability issues.

In nine of the 16 unions (56%) there is a national disability committee or body, while the RMT has just agreed a rule change to bring about a national disabled members’ advisory committee and conference. Prospect has a disability network which encourages members to participate both informally and formally through the union structures. Its delegation to the TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference is largely from this network.

Half the unions in the survey already organise an annual disabled members’ conference or similar event, and the RMT will do this following its recent rule change. The RMT also reports that it has “dramatically increased” its presence at the TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference” by increasing its delegation size. 

The CWU says that its dedicated conference on disability is a good way of getting disabled members engaged in union structures, and that the union’s Voice magazine gives the conference high-profile coverage. 

Reserved seats

Several unions aim to improve the participation of their disabled members by introducing reserved seats for disabled members on union committees. For example, Unite has designated seats on its executive council. 

Although the MU does not have a national disability body, it has an equalities committee with reserved seats for disabled members. 

Similarly, Usdaw has reserved seats for disabled members on each of its regional-level (“divisional”) equalities forums and for disabled activists on its National Equalities Advisory Group.

Equity introduced a reserved seat for a disabled member on its Council in 2012, and the GMB is currently discussing whether to have a disabled members’ reserved seat on its Central Executive Committee. The union also has a disability expert lay member on its National Equality Forum. The NUT has a reserved place on its executive for one member representing disabled teachers. 

UNISON is launching a consultation into reserved seats for disabled members on the union’s national executive and, if that is positive, a rule change will be moved at its annual National Delegate Conference this year. The UCU already has two reserved seats for disabled members on its NEC — one each from the further and higher education sectors — and the union is encouraging its regional committees to have disabled member reps on each committee.

Venues and communication

Unions say they are also striving to ensure accessibility in terms of venues and communication. 

For example, the EIS reported that it has recently upgraded its premises to make them fully accessible and only holds events and meetings in accessible venues, while Unite said that it carries out an access audit for meetings and conferences to ensure the needs of its disabled members are met. The MU says that it has improved its website and communications to members who are visually impaired. 

Equality reps

The existence of equality reps seems to be having some impact in terms of getting more disabled workers involved in union activities. The CWU, for example, reported a higher chance of a disabled person being an equality rep than an industrial rep in its union. The EIS said that it has a developing network of equality reps and is currently discussing a residential learning event for equality reps with disability inclusion on the agenda. Prospect says its equality reps encourage disabled members to join its disability network and that the union encourages equality reps to build events around key dates such as Disability History Month (which runs from 22 November to 22 December each year).

Statistical records

Finally, our survey asked whether the union maintains statistical records on disability. Half the unions were able to provide some data. However, none were able to provide figures on disabled members as a proportion of all of the following: 

• total membership; 

• national executive;

• delegates to TUC Congress; and 

• delegates to the union’s own annual conference. 

Unite and the UCU were able to provide figures in three out of these four areas. Unite keeps statistics on its disabled members on the national executive (1.5%), in its most recent TUC Congress delegation (3.4%) and at its annual conference (2.6%). 

The UCU maintains records on its disabled members as a proportion of total membership (2.4%), as a proportion of the national executive (18%) and as a proportion of delegates to its most recent annual conference (13%). 

However, several unions reported trying to make improvements in this area. For example, the CWU said that its Disability Advisory Committee is making it a priority to review and remedy the lack of information in these areas. 

Similarly, the FBU reports that there is poor information-gathering in relation to disability in the fire service and in the union itself, and is looking at ways of improving records in both. 

And while Equity doesn’t currently monitor the diversity of its members in such areas, it reported that it is pursuing this as an objective. 

Usdaw monitors the participation of members at events and on training courses and says that there has been an increase in the number of disabled delegates — and propositions related to disability — since its disability structures were established.