Writer Nina Miller explores The Student experience for people with disabilities
Glasgow University has a problem with disability. This isn’t new. In fact, I first encountered it four years ago. Picture it: a young woman in a wheelchair attends an open day. Surrounded by infectious excitement, countless young people are getting the first taste of their potential futures. She’s sold the sparkly Glasgow Pitch, free tote bag in hand, feeling inspired: the world is her oyster. She’s told, by a disability advisor, to apply somewhere else.
The reason – that the campus wasn’t very accessible – was nothing I hadn’t noticed already. Disabled people are necessarily aware of their surroundings, and are used to making the best out of them. So I wrote it off as one bad experience, and didn’t take their advice.
I can safely say it wasn’t a one-off. And it’s not just me. No Disabled student wants to believe in a system that mistreats them, or a culture of apathy towards them. But there comes a point where individual failings become too frequent to be flukes.
Back-door entrances. Vital access routes left broken for months. Ramps removed without warning. And a disability service that feels like “pulling teeth” to get a response out of. The severity of the problem goes unnoticed, and therefore unchallenged. Exclusion of Disabled students is, quite literally, built into the University.
Consider this: You have a lecture, and you must use a different entrance from everyone else. You don’t know where it is. Not surprising, it wasn’t meant for public use – it’s a fire exit, or perhaps where the bins are taken out. Everyone files in the proper entrance while you wait by a door that opens from the inside. Sometimes someone lets you in, sometimes not. Let’s say someone does come eventually, but it takes some time and you’re late for class. The lecture has started and everyone’s found their seats. You don’t explain why you were late; it’s embarrassing. No one let you in. This happens again, week after week, month after month.
It’s ironic, thinking back to all the talk of getting into university – who’d have thought getting into the actual buildings is a harder feat than the admissions process?
Every institution has its problems, but at Glasgow they go unchallenged. And they’re not just physical – attitudes that belong in the past are rife. A report into provisions for Disabled students found the University lacks a sense of collective responsibility, and Disabled matters are viewed solely as the problem of the Disability Service (DS). This approach isn’t working. Only 54% of Disabled students find the campus accessible. What’s more, the inaccessible spaces are important. Take University Gardens as an example: these buildings are effectively the hubs of departments – most are completely inaccessible. I’ve been lucky with tutors, who take time to meet me in accessible spaces. In fact, my tutors have been brilliant with access all round. One member of staff reorganises seating for me, another offered to secure space in a highly accessible room for the coming year, just in case I took their class. All to ensure a Disabled student has their… basic needs met. Why do people, with jobs of their own, have to go above and beyond, just to achieve the bare minimum?
To reiterate: I’ve been lucky, others haven’t. Disability support lacks any kind of uniformity across different subjects. Where I’ve been met with understanding, others have been dismissed, excluded from teaching, encouraged to drop out.
It’s easy to feel like you’re the only one on the receiving end of it all. There’s no clique of disabled students hovering around the same broken lift. And for those with invisible disabilities, it’s even harder to encounter people like yourself. These experiences isolate, and obscure the facts of the failures: they’re chronic, systemic and accepted.
It’s not just the learning environment, either. The report shows less than a third of physically impaired students find social spaces accessible. This isn’t unexpected – there’s no obligation for clubs and societies to make events accessible – on a campus like Glasgow’s, this translates to a huge number of social activities which disabled students can’t attend.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. There are clubs who hold all their events in accessible spaces. But in such cases there’s already awareness, and the accommodations aren’t complex. It’s a different story for, say, a music society, where rehearsal spaces are harder to come by, and usually up a flight of stairs.
Clubs and societies are overseen by student unions, but it’s the access on campus that determines whether disabled students can go to social events in University buildings. This problem, then, affects all aspects of university life. Why is it the norm? What does it really mean, when someone tells you access is bad, and you should go somewhere else? It says: This environment isn’t fit for Disabled people, and instead of changing it, we’d prefer you didn’t come here.
The provisions report states: “There are limitations on the main Gilmorehill campus, due to the historic nature of the buildings”. And this is somewhat true. But the heritage of the buildings serves to disguise a casual at best relationship with access. Does a building’s age make it okay to lock shut its accessible entrance, while the door next to it remains open? Or to remove a ramp, during filming for a period drama, without notice? What if it’s really old, is it okay then?
It’s important to note that many within the university do their absolute best to Disabled students, including those in and outwith disability-centred roles. But these individuals can’t bring about change by themselves. A culture of exclusion can’t be changed from the outside in.
Inclusion is a sign of progress, something to strive for. Isn’t embracing change what Glasgow University prides itself on? World Changers Welcome, we see on posters as we’re told to leave our conditions “at the door”, as we can’t access course readings. As we stand outside, waiting to be let in.
Disabled rights don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re mediated by others every step of the way. We can be part of the “inclusive and respectful culture” that the University strives for, provided it doesn’t cost too much or cause any upheaval. These conditions on our equality are, of course, the biggest barrier to real progress.
In the meantime, what can Glasgow do about their problem? They can listen – really listen – to disabled students. They can act quickly when failures arise. And maybe, just maybe, they can stop being so afraid of change.