For students with mobility issues, accessibility is central to their university experience, as Toby Green discovers
As potential students continue to visit York on open days, they will be casting a critical eye on their surroundings. The state of the accommodation, their chosen course’s syllabus, the number and quality of drinking establishments: these factors will all play a large part in their final choice of where to spend the next three years.
Yet for those prospective students who use wheelchairs and scooters, they will also have to take into account an issue which would never cross the minds of the majority of visitors: the problem of accessibility.
Katie Player is the YUSU Disability and Access Officer and a wheelchair user herself. She explained to me that there is one simple obstacle to someone in a wheelchair. “My friends always say I’m like a dalek,” says Katie, “because the only reason daleks don’t take over the world is because they can’t climb stairs. A step or a curb is the only thing that stops wheelchair users, and it becomes a step on top of a step, which then becomes a staircase.”
At York, it is the job of the Disability Office, including Disability Support Co-ordinator Deb Taylor, to try and reduce the impact of disabilities on the day-to-day lives of students. I asked Taylor what the main aim of the Office was. “The ideal is where every person with access difficulties will be able to get anywhere on campus, but obviously we’re working with what we’ve got. Thankfully we’ve got a campus which, I don’t know whether by luck or by design, happens not to have very many steps.”
It’s not just ramps and automatic doors that the Disability Office works to implement and Taylor has already been in contact with some of next year’s student intake, inviting them to be shown around campus and discuss any special provisions that need to be made. “We show them around the wheelchair accessible rooms we have available because we have many different layouts and we let them make their choice, since different users have different needs.”
One student who has benefited from the help provided by the Office is Francis Boorman. “I found the aid they offered extremely helpful, and they listened specifically to my needs. Within a few days of arriving at university they had fitted a button to my chair so I was able to remotely open doors.”
“My friends say I’m like a dalek as the only reason daleks don’t take over the world is because they can’t climb stairs”
Working with Taylor and the rest of the Disability Office is Russell Bailey, Access Officer for Estates Services, the body that is responsible for the management and the development of the university buildings. He stresses that whilst their emphasis is on making physical changes to the campus as much as possible, time constraints and the nature of some of the buildings means that occasionally this is not possible. “The problem is that we are dealing with a campus that was predominantly built in the 1960s when access issues were not really considered. Therefore we get cases, such as when we are trying to widen a corridor for easier wheelchair access to a seminar room for example, where there are obstacles such as structural beams which we are not able to move.”
Alongside an ongoing campus audit working to a five year plan, students, staff and conference guests can also let Estates know when they have problems with access and generally these are dealt with as a matter of priority. In cases where physical constructions and adjustments are not possible, both Estates and the Disability Office work with the student in question and academic departments in order to provide an alternative whilst maintaining an identical service. “Although we’ve certainly got it a bit easier than universities who are dealing with huge medieval buildings, with some of the original colleges it is difficult to make it all accessible,” says Taylor. “When it is difficult to provide full accessibility in a building, we aim to provide the same facilities elsewhere to the same degree.
“If students can’t get into a particular area for their tutorial because their corridor isn’t big enough, we ask that the tutor relocates to a spare room somewhere else where they can give the tutorial just as easily.”
Talking to scooter user Stewart Aitken about his experiences with access on campus, it became clear just how much one piece of equipment malfunctioning can affect those with mobility problems: “Lifts are perhaps the most contentious problem for me in that when they are broken, I can’t access the rooms they would take me to. However, repairs have been undertaken speedily and I have been kept in the information loop as to progress.”
He also talks to his department about how they can make access easier for him. “The place where I will be studying next year recently implemented fire protection improvements which have made access more difficult, but I have been in consultation with them, and improvements will be made before the start of the new year.”
Time and money restraints aside, the general view is both positive about the work already done on campus to help disabled students and hopeful for the future. Yet, as I was to find out, York city centre was a different story. In an attempt to gain a small glimpse into the difficulties posed by environments built around the needs of able-bodied people to those with mobility issues, I decided to spend some time around York in a wheelchair myself. Katie was encouraging: “I think it’s a really good idea, but you can’t cheat. And you will want to cheat. I’m sure you’ll find it easy. Well, maybe…”
The one thing that hit me was the way in which people simply failed to take any notice of my ‘needs’. There were plenty of what Katie calls “sympathy stares”, yet on a busy Friday the crowds didn’t seem to realise that I needed more space than they did. If people got out the way at all, they did so only at the last moment. People walking towards me gave me only the narrowest gap with which to pass them, meaning I was almost forced into the road on a number of occasions.
It wasn’t only about giving me space; people also interacted with me differently. Katie had warned me that “when shopping with someone, you’ll find shop assistants don’t talk to you, they talk to the person you’re with. Even when I’ve directly asked them a question some people will talk to the person I’m with.” I found this out for myself when taking the FTR bus back to campus. Although clearly displaying I was capable of speech when being helped on by a conductor, he chose to bypass me and address my companion as to where we were getting off. It was a very strange experience, as if my companion was somehow a ‘real’ grown-up who was there in order to be responsible for my well-being.
In terms of access to shops, there was a wide variety in quality. Some, such as Marks and Spencer, had nice wide passageways which were easy to traverse. Others, such as Jack Wills, had that dreaded step. In 2004, changes were made to the Disability Discrimination Act that required “businesses and other organisations to take reasonable steps to tackle physical features that act as a barrier to disabled people who want to access their services.” Taylor is “amused” by its effects on York city centre. “I found suddenly there were cases such as doorbells attached to gates outside for wheelchair access, but the bell would be quite low down or you wouldn’t be able to reach it if you were in a wheelchair. We have lots of places where they will pull out their new piece of technology, but there’s a difference between it seeming to be accessible and it actually working. These are places that will have made the effort but possibly need to think about it a little more.”
“Everything, including this campus, is designed on the assumption that people have the ability to get around easily”
Katie agrees: “In general clubs are a nightmare. As a result I tend to go to places that I know, or I pop my chair outside and my friends carry me around which is fine as I’m light and chuckable. You find the places that are good, the places which are bad, and stick to it.”
A prime, and rather amusing, example is Toffs. “Their disabled access takes you into the indie room where there is a small area around two square metres, and then steps. So you are able to get into those two square metres but nowhere else!” Through her role in the Students’ Union, she is currently in discussion with Toffs, in the hope that their planned construction for a smoking area will mean that wheelchair users will have a greater freedom. “I’m going to go in there and tell them where I think ramps should go, and they might turn around and say no but I’m going to give it a try anyway.” Unsurprisingly Ziggy’s is “awful”, but Evil Eye, Dusk and HaHa! all get the thumbs up, mainly because of the size of their disabled toilets.
Neil Barnes was YUSU Academic and Welfare Officer from 2005-2006, and I asked him whether he thought an attitude change was needed. “From what I saw, people need to move away from thinking they need to improve access because of legality or ‘duty’, and move towards wanting to improve access because they believe disabled students are equal partners in society.”
He picked out an example from his time as part of the Students’ Union. “When James Alexander was President, he went all-out to organise a Disability Awareness training session for SU officers and embarrassed those who didn’t go by publicly naming and shaming them. It was an excellent session and I felt it really changed people’s views. However, when I suggested something similar to my fellow officers last year, one response was, ‘Oh God, not that again, what a waste of time.’ So you see how some people can’t really be bothered with access for disabled students—it’s like a necessary evil for them.”
I asked Stewart how he felt the attitude of his fellow students was towards wheelchair and scooter users. “Students are in general very helpful, however there are some issues. For example, sometimes students will meet friends and stop and chat in the most awkward places. They will see you coming and ignore you until you ask them to move.
It is these examples of people just not thinking, rather than deliberately restricting wheelchair access, that Taylor believes show it is vital to raise awareness. “One of the examples that I’ve enjoyed using in the past is the rule that you are not allowed to ride bikes on the covered walkways. Many people think, ‘What’s the point of that?’ and do it anyway. The problem is people on bikes tend to assume people will move out the way, yet for a variety of reasons the person in front of you may not be aware of your presence. There was once a nasty accident where a deaf student hadn’t heard a cyclist’s bell, and they ended up getting tangled.”
It’s also important for her that people aren’t afraid to ask their fellow students if they think they may need help, but are unsure about what they can do: “Don’t automatically make assumptions that people see things, do things, hear things, move, and walk in the same way as you do. If you have a student with a visual or hearing impairment in your seminar group, don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing; ask the student themselves.”
For Katie, the importance is mainly for people to just have it in their minds. “It doesn’t have to be a conscious thing so that people are panicking, thinking: ‘Oh God, we must all get ramps’. It’d just be good if people reading this think that one day, if they opened a shop or restaurant, they may get a ramp or a big toilet. People need to realise that making provisions isn’t as hard as it seems.”
Taylor believes that it is society’s responsibility to work towards a different attitude to access. “Everything, including this campus, is primarily designed on the assumption that people have the ability to get around, and to get around very easily. In fact, any ability that any of us have is only temporary. As we get older our mobility gets less, and you’ll find the slopes work for older people too and so on. It’s not just helping the disabled; there are things that can be done that can make life easier for everybody and it is these kinds of things that we’re steadily trying to get implanted. With the University, we’re trying to move away from ‘Oh, look, that person is disabled and we’re having to do things for them’. If the little things are thought about, it means that disability doesn’t become as much of an issue.”