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The problem with being disabled at university.

"It’s against the law for a school or other education provider to treat disabled students unfavourably." - Equality Act 2010

Recently the lift in my university accommodation was out of action. For 6 days! Whilst for most people this is a mere inconvenience for 2 people this was a bit more than that, in fact for 1 person this meant they couldn't access their accommodation.

This piece will detail this experience and my thoughts on the matter, I hope it is insightful and informative, but more importantly it enrages you to share it, and that it provokes a response which will ultimately lead to change!

I did think about writing this straight away, but thought it best to wait a few days to 1) let myself calm down, 2) give the appropriate parties a chance to respond.

Let me first acknowledge my bias, I am one of the students affected (mostly ambulant/Cerebral Palsy), my girlfriend Bethany is the other student affected; full-time Wheelchair User. I am emotionally invested in this.

As a disabled student something I am extremely passionate about is seeing more people like myself in higher education, I have spoken about the issue of accessibility in higher education at every opportunity available; Channel 4, Access HE Conference's & TEDx. I passionately believe for the good of the economy and society that Education needs to be accessible and inclusive of all. It's a message I will shout loudly to anyone who will listen, however after this recent experience I was forced to reconsider my position - can I as an individual considered a role-model/public figure (or angry disabled guy depending who you ask) really tell young disabled people to go into Higher Education when I know their needs will not be fully catered for? Furthermore can I tell other people with disabilities to come to Brunel University when I have had numerous negative experiences?

These are questions I know battle with.

On the one hand I think let's get as many people with disabilities into Higher Education as possible and I can try and fix/address the problems when they face them (which they inevitably will) on the other hand I seriously question is it fair for them to go through what myself and others have gone through in the last few years at university.

N.B. fighting is tiring. It's exhausting, it consumes you all your time and all your positive energy. I've often thought life would be easier if I just SHUT UP, but if I don't say anything it will never change and then the next person will face the same BS.

So why am I so angry?

On the 31st of March, Beth and I returned to Brunel to this sign.

In the past when the lift has been out of order an email was sent to inform and apologise. (Whilst its a good gesture this information is pointless, the position remains the same - we still cant get in or out of the flat). On this occasion no email was sent.

We returned to find this sign dated 29/03/2018 - here's my frustration - 1) if informed although inconvenient we could have made alternative arrangements, 2) if it was out since the 29th then there was plenty of time to fix it. (P.S. the Good Friday excuse is not valid - If a wheelchair user can't get in or out of their flat you need to find a lift engineer whether its a bank holiday, weekend, Easter, Christmas Day!)

I can only guess an email wasn't sent out on Thursday when it initially went down because it was late in the evening and staff were rushing home for the long Easter weekend, and it was assumed we had gone home for Easter, or... we weren't thought of! (usually the case).

Unfortunately for us we came back on a Saturday so there were no staff so we were forced to call Security. After informing them about the situation which they knew nothing about (one they should have been aware of for Fire/Health & Safety/Evacuation reasons), they promised they would be over shortly to help. Nearly an hour later them came to "assist", and a great help they were...

"How are we supposed to help you" LOL

Sadly Beth was forced to "walk" up the stairs whilst one of them carried her chair upstairs. There are a number of things that Horrify me about this.

  • She's in a Wheelchair for a REASON!!! How undignified is it to have to get out your chair and haul yourself upstairs. (luckily on her good days she can just about "walk" - but this comes with a high risk of dislocation and is extremely dangerous on stairs/ not to mention extremely painful)

  • What if she couldn't get out her chair? (One of my friends has Spina Bifida and this wouldn't have been an option)

  • The fact that security had literally NO IDEA what to do is extremely WORRYING!

Lessons learned...

- Whatever you do, DON'T call security as a Wheelchair User

We were forced to go back to Essex as we couldn't stay at university. It wasn't practical to call security every-time we needed to get in and out of the flat, and we didn't trust them to help us anyway. Plus who's got time to wait 1 hour each time! After much discussion we decided I'd carry the chair (despite being extremely fatigued and very shaky) and Beth would bum-shuffle down the stairs.

N.B. I shouldn't be carrying stuff downstairs, and she shouldn't have to bum-shuffle - I haven't done that since I was a kid.

Tuesday 3rd!

We returned to Brunel on Tuesday 3rd after a lovely Easter Weekend. Laden with cases, food and washing (we're students) we were looking forward to a quiet evening in after unloading the car...

I told Beth to wait in the car whilst I checked if the lift had been fixed. She laughed telling me there was no way it wouldn't be, it was Tuesday the lift had been out since Thursday this was 6 days later. No way it was still broken!

Low an behold it was!

Luckily we caught the lift engineer leaving the halls and spoke to him. He informed us the lift was still out of action, and that he didn't have the parts to fix it. Confused, angry and frustrated we asked him what we were supposed to do. At first he walked off - it wasn't his problem. 5 minutes later he came back and agreed to turn on the lift without the missing part as long as we were happy that it didn't fully function.

Beth would rather have a lift that didn't fully function than no lift at all! So we went inside and I took to Twitter (picture at the start).

The power of social media...

It didn't take long to get a response across the various platforms, Twitter & Facebook. Amongst the comments of concern were some of critique - surely it would be better to tell maintenance/ Estates the problem rather than writing on Twitter?

Whilst it was a good suggestion to talk to the relevant parties directly, this was something both Beth and I gave up on a long time ago. We've brought countless issues in the past with little or no result. Sadly when an organisation cares more about their corporate image then they do about the service users then Social Media is the only way.

Since then we have had various emails from different university entities, and responses from the Union and the university on Twitter. I have no doubt that the matter would not have been taken seriously if it were not for me Tweet. (thanks Twitter)

Beth has even been given £100 worth of food vouchers to spend at their university food outlets yippee!!! A token gift to silence us? Maybe. (possibly by eating food Beth can learn to walk and she'll no longer need her chair!)

Frankly its not good enough, on the day I could walk but there are days I cant and Beth is a WHEELCHAIR USER! We both pay in excess of £5000 a year for accommodation (Brunel are all to quick to chase you if your payments late) - how about refunding substandard service? ... not so fast!

Actions...

  • I will be following up on training for security as they really don't have a clue.

  • There needs to be an emergency contact for disabled students at all hours, when something like this happens we shouldn't be left to deal with it alone

  • I also think it is not unreasonable that Brunel should provide proper compensation for the duration we were not able to stay in our accomadation

(Really they should have put us in alternative accommodation for those 6 days) maybe they should put us up in a hotel for a few days to say sorry...

Let me end with this:

"Publicly funded education providers have a duty under the Equality Act not to discriminate against potential, current or former students. An education provider could be a university, college, Local Authority or a school which runs further education courses. All aspects of studying are covered including:

course admissions, the provision of education, access to any benefit, facility or service, exclusions." - Equality Act 2010

P.S. the lift still isn't fully fixed...

 

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