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Oxford’s accessibility crisis

Less than a third of departments responded to an internal survey designed to assess compliance with University disability policy, Cherwell can reveal.

The survey was conducted by Student Welfare and Support Services (SWSS) in Hilary Term 2018 as part of the University’s Common Framework for Disability. Overall, 30.8% of departments responded, with a total of 36 departments failing to comply.

The news follows the the release of an Oxford SU report on the accessibility of Oxford libraries released on Wednesday.

The report, produced on behalf of Oxford Students Disability Community (OSDC), Oxford SU’s official disability campaign, revealed a widespread lack of accessibility measures in Oxford’s libraries. Just 9.2% of college libraries have full step free access.

Cherwell also conducted a survey of students at Oxford who self-identified as having one or more disabilities. While 43.5% of respondents thought that provision for disabilities at Oxford was either ‘better’ or ‘much better’ than they expected, 47.8% were either ‘unsatisfied’ or ‘very unsatisfied’ with the support provided by the centralised University and its departments.

Several of the respondents agreed to speak to Cherwell under the condition of anonymity.

One student at a large Oxford college, told Cherwell: “The burden is on the disabled students to pressure the college to make it accessible rather than the college trying to find ways to improve. My college will often ask for suggestions on how to improve access but then not act on the advice received.

“In my case, I have had to fight for everything I have. It is specific to me, and when I leave the next person will have to start from the beginning.

“For example, I realised at the end of last year that the college had been helping some students who were ill (with an issue I haven’t included because it would be obvious who I am to any administrator reading it). Despite knowing about my condition, nobody told me this was an option. I had been struggling and making my health worse for an entire term be- cause I didn’t have access to this resource.

“When I asked about this, the college said that they only help students with temporary conditions but not students with long-term ones (presumably because it’s too much work to do it long term but they didn’t say why). I reached out to a disability rights organisation and found out that, legally, they have to provide the same help to students with short and long-term conditions, and eventually, they did.

“However, my condition deteriorated during the process of figuring this out. The stress and time and work involved with sending many different emails about this issue, calling disability rights organisations, and negotiating, took a toll on my health and distracted from my studies.

“I’m not the first person to go through Oxford not able to walk. I know other stu- dents have done it, but the University acts as if they have never heard of this before and has no idea what to do for students in this position.

“Of the friends I’ve met with my condition (ME/CFS), all of them have had to suspend their studies or withdraw, partly because it’s a horrible disease, but also partly because their colleges were not accessible.

“I have lectures recorded because I have a medical letter that says basically if I physically push myself beyond a certain limit I am at risk of being permanently wheelchair bound or bedridden. I didn’t have lectures recorded my first term because I was told by the disability office there was nothing they could do, that they could request for the department to record them, but not require it of them, even though all of the equipment was there just not being used. I have spoken with undergrads in other colleges who do not have lectures recorded even though they have the exact same condition and in some cases are worse off than I am.

“I have a mentor through the disability office which I am grateful for and has been incredibly helpful to me. However, at the beginning of last year, I was often too ill to leave my room. In those situations, it used to be allowed that the mentors would visit ill students at their college, but now mentors are not allowed to do this even if they want to.”

She added: “I quite literally wouldn’t have made it through last year without the help I had from my friends. I think what a lot of people don’t realise is how precarious our position is. There is law protecting disabled students, but it’s not enforced and these students don’t have the resources to sue the school in the event that it isn’t. It would take a tremendous investment of effort.

“If we had the ability to go through all of that, we could just use that energy to pass the course in the first place, so we really rely on the Uni’s discretion to choose to follow the spirit of the law which sometimes happens but often doesn’t. Any official support relies on relationship building, negotiation, and the level of concern the Uni or department has for you.”

Another student – who also wished to remain anonymous – told Cherwell: “The senior tutor at my college approaches students’ health issues in a really harmful way. When one student considered suspending studies due to anxiety and a chronic health condition the senior tutor tried to scare her into staying by saying that everyone who suspends does worse academically than if they had stayed.

“When another student suffered from depression the senior tutor accused him of purposefully sabotaging his studies and told him to talk to his therapist about this. She seems to have no sense of appropriate boundaries and talks about students’ health problems with others without permission. I honestly fear for the health of future students. Both a JCR disability officer and I have tried to talk to the senior tutor about these issues but we were dismissed. They argue that if there really was an issue that information would have reached them already. But the truth is that people won’t bring up issues for fear of being labelled trouble makers by the people who will very likely be writing their references.

“I have suggested that anonymous feedback forms should be sent out to students on sensitive issues like this, I don’t understand why colleges aren’t already doing this.”

Ebie Edwards Cole, the co-author of Wednesday’s SU report, told Cherwell: “Student welfare and support should be an absolute priority at our university. It is extremely disappointing that 36 departments did not reply to a survey about compliance to university disability policy when equal opportunities and accessibility are such key components of student welfare. I would strongly encourage all departments to make replying to such surveys going forward standard practice.”

A University spokesperson told Cherwell: “Oxford takes the issue of disability access very seriously, and is constantly working to address this in all of its forms across a broad range of sites, some of which are complicated by the historic nature of the buildings involved. In August 2016 the University introduced a facility to record lectures for students who are unable to attend in person, and adoption of this service has steadily increased since then.

“There has also been a significant increase in demand on the mentoring service in recent years. To maximise the number of student mentoring appointments we can provide, we can offer remote support (e.g. via Skype), or for students who have difficulty travelling as a result of their disability we can assist with applications for the travel component of the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA), which can be used to help fund taxis between their college and the DAS.

“Our Disability Advisory Service has appointed a Disability Inclusion Project Officer in direct response to the recommendations in the University’s own Inclusive Teaching Practice report, who is working on producing materials that will be used as the basis for developing online staff courses and induction resources. Around 4,000 students at Oxford have declared a disability, and we consider each student’s individual circumstances to provide the resources and adjustments they need to study.”

Elsewhere in the city, Westgate, Oxford has been accused of ignoring the needs of wheelchair users. The shopping centre’s car park, constructed during the redevelopment and extension of 2016-17, has a height restriction of just 2m, preventing the entrance of many Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAVs). Larger WAVs are primarily used by people who require heavy wheelchairs, and are often 2.4m high. The height restriction of 2m falls short of the recommendations of the UK’s national standards body, the BSI. British Standard 8300, which is concerned with making buildings accessible, stipulates a minimum headroom of 2.6m.

Amanda MacKenzie-Stuart, a local resident whose husband is severely disabled, told Cherwell: “It’s an absolute disgrace that brand-new civic projects costing £440m…[are] still taking this very limited view of disability.”

In April, MacKenzie-Stuart gave a speech to Oxford City Council, in which she recounted the “very dangerous” situation created by the height restriction:

“There are no signs warning of height restrictions until the driver is already committed to going down the ramp into the car park. Indeed, signs to the excellent Shopmobility scheme ironically leads to the belief that all disabled vehicles are welcome.

“It is only once one is on the ramp that a dangerous situation becomes apparent. At that point the sign orders you to do a U-turn – on the ramp, with exiting cars accelerating round the corner up the ramp having passed through the ticket barriers. This design flaw needs urgent attention before an already vulnerable person in the back of a large WAV is seriously injured.”

Cherwell understands that Westgate, Oxford may not be responsible for signage outside the shopping complex itself. The shopping centre has now published a map of nearby accessible parking on its website. It also prominently warns potential visitors of the 2m height restriction.

MacKenzie-Stuart, however, called this “wholly inadequate,” citing the poor quality and visibility of such parking. “Those blue-badge spaces do not solve the problem.”

A spokesman for Westgate Oxford told Cherwell: “We are aware of the concerns regarding disability access within West- gate car park and have been working with the council to address these. We will be improving the way we communicate information about the car park with our customers, and continue to evaluate what further improvements we can make.

“We have, for example, created an additional drop off point for high-sided vehicles on Old Greyfriars Street.

“We’re committed to ensuring Westgate is enjoyed by all and welcome feedback from visitors.”

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