149 rooms used for student contact hours not disability accessible, investigation finds

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A recent freedom of information request has revealed that there are currently 149 rooms used for student contact hours that are not accessible to those with mobility issues. These rooms are spread across 25 buildings on both the hill and bailey.

Furthermore, an additional freedom of information request has found that 35% of rooms on timetable do not have lift and/or ramp access (not including college rooms), with 15 Durham University buildings used for student contact hours not being accessible with a ramp/or lift.

Disabilities and Carers Associations (DaCA), formerly known as the Students with Disabilities Association, stated that this “comes as no surprise to DaCA,” and that “every student with mobility issues at Durham has had some experience of how inaccessible the campus is,” summarising it as “disappointing.”

Speaking on the accessibility issues that disabled students face at Durham face, DaCA President Elisha Wharton stated that “While we are happy that the university is building physical accessibility into their new builds/renovations, students with mobility access issues face many difficulties, particularly on the bailey.” 

She also claimed that students with accessibility issues have not had some classes moved “out of physically inaccessible classrooms.” 

She continued, “While buildings may be accessible, students still have to get there. For example, it disfavours students with mobility difficulties/chronic conditions if they are scheduled to go up and down Cardiac Hill all day. Students are often told to catch up on classes online. However, this expectation ignores how students with mobility difficulties have as much a right to attend classes in-person as able-bodied students.”

“There are instances where ‘accessible’ accommodation is not,” she said, “For example, Cuth’s has wheelchair-accessible bedrooms but the laundry area is physically inaccessible.”

Students with mobility difficulties have as much a right to attend classes in-person as able-bodied students

Elisha Wharton

Recently, DaCA has been in conversation with both the Student Union and the University regarding their student support structure. This academic year, the University introduced a new student support model where each department now has a student support officer for students to reach out to for disability support. However, this decision, which came alongside an update to the extensions process, was criticised by some students.

Wharton expressed her disappointment at the “delays” that she said disabled students face whilst waiting for Disability Support Plans (DSPs). Furthermore, she said “for students with mobility difficulties, this can mean they are unable to attend classes, fire-safety plans are not implemented in college accommodation, and they are disadvantaged academically.”

Durham Students’ Union (SU) President Dan Lonsdale stated that he believes that in light of the freedom of information request, “Durham University is failing students who are affected by these inaccessible spaces. Nobody expects the University to alter the physical geography of the city, but students rightly expect that they make the campus as accessible as possible for them – these findings suggest that this is not the case.

“Even if not all of these buildings can be made accessible, this number is still unacceptable and I cannot believe these issues have been allowed to remain unaddressed. Students should not have to either make do with a shoddy mitigation or wait an eternity for an accessibility issue to be addressed.” 

He uses the example of Dunelm House, the University-owned building where Durham SU is based, to suggest that accessibility issues on campus are not addressed, calling it “one of the most inaccessible, yet most relied upon” buildings on campus. Durham SU does have a stairlift, which is the only way of going up and down the floors without using the stairs.”

In response to these criticisms, a university spokesperson told Palatinate “We are dedicated to ensuring an accessible environment across our estate. We have accelerated investing in accessibility improvements, both in new build and renovation projects.

“Our historic estate, including heritage assets, presents practical challenges for achieving accessibility, but we make every effort to implement reasonable adjustments.”

Similarly, Lonsdale agreed with the concerns about “the challenges with DSPs (and the wider issues with the new student support model)”, after “having worked alongside DaCA this year to raise these concerns, which emerged from evidence collected by DaCA, with senior members of university staff.”

Universities have a legal obligation to “make reasonable adjustments” for students who suffer from disabilities. Legally speaking, disabilities are “substantial” or “long-term” conditions, meaning they should have a “more than minor” impact on someone’s day-to-day life or has, or is likely to last more than 12 months.

Nobody expects the University to alter the physical geography of the city, but students rightly expect that they make the campus as accessible as possible for them

Dan Lonsdale

Wharton argued for broader support to reduce barriers for students who have recently developed disabilities, saying “we believe the University should accommodate all students.” She saw a problem in how “disability support often only offers support for issues that have been present for a year,” due to guidance surrounding the Equality Act.

They suggested that this could cause barriers in accessing DSPs when students have recently developed mobility issues, worrying that students might “have no choice but to study unaccommodated.”

She ultimately believes that, “The treatment of students with mobility issues/chronic conditions emphasises to disabled students that the university does not prioritise or value our presence at Durham.”

Lonsdale then outlined the need for reform, “The new student support model, while a necessary reform with the right idea in mind, has had problems that extend beyond ‘teething issues’ into being simply farcical. DSPs must be easily available and swiftly actioned. Timetabling must consider students’ accessibility requirements.

“It is also clear that there needs to be a discussion about how the current curriculum plays out in practice, and the necessity for extensions, with tightly packed and deeply pressured deadlines. We need a blanket seven days, no-questions-asked, extension available for each assignment for all students introduced, alongside curriculum reform. As well as this blanket extension, disabled students, who cannot predict the occurrence or length of a flare up of that disability, should also be granted a more flexible extension window accordingly and supported in navigating that situation.”

He finishes with a statement of support “We will continue to support DaCA in their fantastic work collecting and sharing evidence of their members’ experiences of a campus which makes life difficult for them daily, and which further University inaction would allow to continue being the case.”

In response to issues surrounding timetabling, the university offered this statement: “Accessibility is an important consideration when we schedule teaching activities. We review timetables against student disability support plans and make adjustments where possible. For example, for 2024/25 we removed teaching from inaccessible spaces.”

Image: Shadow Lau

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