Originally Published 04 March 2002
By 2004, all businesses and service providers must improve access for those with disabilities or face legal action under the latest section of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act. Here, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Professor Susan Bassnett asks what more can we do for the disabled?
For the last couple of years I have chaired the University Accommodation Committee. This is the body that oversees academic accommodation needs, so members need to be up to speed regarding any special problems around the campus. We spend days (literally) walking around buildings, investigating the size of lecture theatres, listening to complaints about overcrowding, over-long walking distances, air-conditioning and anything else that students and colleagues care to bring to our attention.
On the whole, the Warwick campus isn?t bad. The grounds are magnificently well-maintained, new buildings are going up all the time, old ones are being refurbished and the place looks smart, not scruffy. As good as it gets, you might say, and so did I until something happened that changed my perspective and made me ask some rather different questions. That something was a back injury. Overnight I went from being someone who walks briskly, runs up and down stairs and has no problems at all around the campus to being someone who could only walk with difficulty and the aid of a walking stick. And what a different campus I encountered in my disabled condition.
For a start, there are stairs, steps and different levels all over the place, often where you least expect them. That looks great in terms of landscaping, but it makes for complications when you are negotiating with a stick. Some buildings have ramps, but often the ramps are oddly located, and you have to walk some distance to use them, as at the front of the Arts Centre. Inside buildings it?s much worse. For my first meeting, I had to get to the Law School, which is on the second floor of Social Studies. There is a lift in the building, though at the opposite end from the Law School, but it was out of action and being repaired. How do disabled students get to their classes when that one lift isn?t operational? And it made me think hard about the difficulties of getting up to the fifth floor of the Humanities building when the lifts are out of order, as not infrequently happens. It also made me ask whether all buildings have lifts, whether they have more than one lift and how often those lifts are out of action.
The Humanities building has a whole other set of difficulties, namely doors. Not only are the doors incredibly heavy, but you never know which way they are going to open. Some open outwards, some inwards, some tell you to push or to pull, most don?t tell you anything. Walking slowly along the first floor from Psychology to my department I had to go through four sets of doors, two of which open inwards, two outwards and all of which are so heavy that twice I had to give up trying to open them, burdened as I was with a walking stick and a briefcase, and wait until help came along.
Later in the day, I had to cross the road for a meeting in Radcliffe House. This was a true test of endurance in the face of terror: cars come along the road so fast, and although there is an island in the road there is no crossing, so someone walking as painfully and slowly as I, is a positive target. Able-bodied students were leaping to safety all around me and I stood for several minutes plucking up the courage to attempt to get across.
Once I started sharing these experiences, people queued up to tell me similar stories, all of which leads me to conclude that we ought to spend a little more time thinking through the facilities for disabled students around the Warwick campus. True, the landscaping is great, the paintwork isn?t peeling, some of the newest buildings are splendid and we can all feel proud of our university, but I can assure you that my few days as a disabled person made me look at the world in a very different way. Perhaps we should invite suggestions for how to improve provision for the disabled. More automatic doors and a crossing to Radcliffe House are currently top of my list. What?s at the top of yours?
If you would like to express your opinion in response to Professor Bassnett's views, please email V.Trivedi@warwick.ac.uk