And we’re back again with the “University as a Disabled Student” chat, possibly for the last time. Back when I finished my undergraduate degree, I did a “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and The Surprising” blog post on accessibility at my undergraduate university (Brunel University London) which seemed to be really well received. With that in mind and given that I went to a different university for my (now completed) Masters degree, I thought I’d redo the post thinking about the accessibility at my Masters University. So here it is, the good, the bad and the ugly of accessibility at Aston University.
Well let’s start on a good foot. From my very first interaction with them as an applicant, the Enabling Team seemed like they were actually committed to making a difference to the students they supported, rather than just paying lip service and sounding like they care (something I was used to from other institutions). I remember when I first saw my potential accommodation and was asked if I’d need any specific adaptations on top of what was already in the room. I said “oh, [insert adaptation here] would be good if you could try” and was told “you’re saying you need it, it will happen, no try about it”. That commitment to getting me what I requested was refreshing and not something I was used to hearing. The accommodation also had more accessibility adaptations than I’d previously seen or heard of at other universities, things such as ceiling hoists and a dog spend pen for assistance dogs. I know these are probably adaptations that should be in every university accommodation as standard, but again it was just refreshing to see them included in the accommodation at Aston. The other plus point about the Enabling Team is that, once my support package was in place, I was emailed a copy of the accommodations/support we had decided I would receive. This is not something I remember receiving a copy of at my previous university and, whilst it seems like a small thing, it really put my mind at rest knowing I had a copy of what I was entitled to, which I could refer to if I ever had issues with my disability being accommodated whilst I was studying at Aston. And I’m not the only one who’s had such good, personal service from the Enabling Team, my friend Becca also said she found it really easy to get into touch with the person in charge of her support plan if there was ever an issue. That personal touch and reachability is one of the good things about having a smaller Enabling Team.
The other good thing was that I felt like the Disabled Students Officer had a lot more involvement in changing things than at my previous university. Of course, that could be an issue of perspective, since for most of my time there I WAS the Disabled Students Officer (I took the role in November until roles changed in July). And by now everyone knows I will just involve myself in making a change to accessibility and the lives of the disabled community, whether you ask for my involvement or not!
In terms of more physical accessibility adaptations, Becca mentioned an ‘all singing all dancing’ accessible toilet by the Great Hall on the upper ground floor. This isn’t something I’ve ever used but Becca says it has an automatic door, an easy flush toilet, hoist, shower and changing bed, which all sounds pretty accessible to me! The only downside is that it’s only accessible to those who have their university cards programmed to open the automatic doors throughout the university, and not everyone’s card is programmed to do that.
The library also has a number of height adjustable desks on different floors in the main area so that those who need height adjustable desks can also study with friends. Again, these aren’t something I ever used but Becca said they were quickly repaired in the past when they broke down and were also accompanied by large signage reminding students to give priority for those desks to wheelchair users (signage which, crucially, was actually followed).
Now onto the bad stuff, there were multiple instances of broken lifts encountered by myself and my friends, both in the university accommodation and in the university itself. Now of course people can say “well lifts break, at least there are several so you can just use another one and take a different route”. That’s all well and good but, whether it’s a case of not being able to access a room or having to take a longer route, that’s energy and time that disabled students have to factor in which non-disabled students do not, not to mention that those routes often involve going outside in the usually rainy weather. And this isn’t just the odd occurrence, these issues happen on multiple occasions. There were also ALWAYS LONG L-O-N-G queues for the lifts. I know invisible disabilities exist and there WERE 7 floors so I assume no one wants to take the stairs to the 7th floor, but still these queues always seemed excessive even accounting for all of that. Becca told me, that as a wheelchair user and fresher living on the 12th floor, she would have to leave her flat 25 minutes before lectures to avoid being late whereas her flatmates could leave 5 or 10 minutes before the lecture. I don’t think I need to spell out for you that that is a vast and unreasonable difference in times. The lifts also had signage saying to give priority to those with mobility issues, which effectively meant I could queue jump, but I always felt bad and like I was being judged for queue jumping so I rarely did.
There were also poorly designed disabled toilets, like the one pictured below with a large space between the toilet roll holder and the actual toilet (yes I know about transfer space but the toilet roll holder could have been on the wall beside the disabled toilet instead of on the opposite wall). Design issues like these often make me dread using bathrooms, which is kind of a problem when the bathroom pictured below is next to the Psychology Research labs where I spent entire days almost 5 days a week for parts of my Masters degree. There was also a specific computer room for the use of Cognitive Neuroscience MSc (my degree) students, which had a keypad so only we could enter. However, the keypad was positioned up way too high for me as a wheelchair user to reach. This is despite the room being newly opened when I joined my course and the university likely knowing a wheelchair user was going to be using that room, given that I’d made my disability clear on my application and had only applied in July for a September start. And even if you DON’T know a disabled student will be using the room immediately when it is opened, make it accessible anyway in the idea that a disabled student will use it at some point!
Now for the uglier side of things. I’m quite privileged (is that the right way to phrase it?) that a lot of the worst of Aston’s accessibility issues weren’t things I personally experienced but more issues I heard about through my role as Disabled Students Officer. A lot of what I heard was the same problems from different students across many schools within the university. This was the most frustrating part because it was OBVIOUS the university weren’t learning, or even attempting to learn, from all the issues I was bringing forward as Disabled Students Officer and all the mistakes they were making. These were issues like not adhering to students Individual Learner Agreements (i.e. the accommodations and changes to assessments that a specific student was entitled to on account of their disability). This left the students I spoke to worried about how, or even if, they would complete their degrees. I cannot tell you the frustration that I feel when I realise that a student who could do well in their degree may not get a degree at all simply because the university will not accommodate them correctly. Similar to that, there were issues about information regarding entitlement to alternative assessments not being passed onto the disabled student. This meant the student was stressing and struggling to revise for an exam they never actually had to take. This was obviously extra stress and unnecessary work and effort for the student, which is even more frustrating when you understand that some disabilities are energy based and may mean allocating specific energy to specific tasks at the expense of others. Therefore this lack of communication about alternative assessments could have left the student with not enough energy to do basic tasks like caring for themself.
When given the opportunity to respond, Hannah Bartlett (Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion) provided the following statement on behalf of Aston University:
“While we are pleased to hear about the positive experiences that disabled students have had of our dedicated Enabling Team, we are always receptive to feedback about what more we can do to support our community. We encourage students to let us know, via the Enabling Team at firstname.lastname@example.org, or using the email@example.com email address, of any issues around support, facilities or technology. We will address individual needs on a case by case basis.
With respect to teaching and learning, students are encouraged to contact the Enabling Team, who will discuss individual requirements. Recommended adjustments are shared with the student, Programme team and the Exams and Assessment teams. The Enabling Team will serve as a regular point of contact, helping to ensure that adjustments are implemented. Where students have needs above and beyond standard adjustments, specific requirements will be assessed and implemented on an individual basis. We encourage any students who feel that they are not currently receiving the support they need to contact The Enabling Team for confidential advice.”
Beyond this statement, Hannah also stated that she is very open to continuing a conversation and ongoing dialogue about these issues.
Soooooo, in conclusion, I think there are some things that Aston has done better than my previous university in terms of accessibility. But it is by no means perfectly accessible and there is CERTAINLY much more work to do, work that I hope to help with when I (hopefully) return for my PhD.
Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)