Accessibility at Kent
By Emily Regan 27th February 2021
Image Courtesy of Marianne Martin
Each year the University of Kent sees a variety of students step onto campus for the first time, return for their second or third year or possibly beyond that. With the large bundle of students brings a range of disabilities both visible and non-visible. This creates a variety of needs that the University should accommodate to. However, there is still plenty of alterations to be made around campus, as well as, improving student and staffs knowledge on disabilities. Myself and InQuires Editor-in-Chief, spoke to Paul-Georg, a blind student at the University of Kent, about his experience on campus and the ways accessibility can be improved throughout the University.
Paul-Georg, originally from Germany, is a masters student at the University. His disability journey started at around the age of 6, to then be registered blind at the age of 18 before he started studying for 3 years at a German university, he then transferred to Kent to further his studies. Throughout his life, Paul-Georg has faced many barriers both social and physical, as well as noticing how people treat and behave in a certain way towards him. Experiencing this developed his interest in disability culture and disability right and accessibility, while building a passion for bettering the situation for fellow disabled students who follow him in the future, so that they don’t go through the same difficulties that he struggled with. In our interview with Paul-George he said “I want people to have the freedom of choice to essentially say ‘yeah I’m disabled but I can do whatever I like, study wherever I want, I can study whatever I want, I don’t have to go into accessibility, activism or advocacy because things are already accessible enough for me.’” However, right now that is not the case, there is still a lot of ignorance and intolerance existing that Paul-Georg is trying remove over his last year doing his masters.
When Paul-Georg first arrived at the University he was assigned with Rutherford accommodation, which as we all know, is not the easiest building to navigate around. He had previously spoken to the Student Support Services and had established that there would be someone waiting to meet him and help guide him around the building and campus. Unfortunately, when he arrived there was no one there to guide him around and Paul-Georg had to find a student to help him. Thankfully, he was able to find a student who showed him to his room and they talked about why he had been put in Rutherford as it’s “just generally a maze within itself and if you are disabled or blind, it maybe would be better for you to have a more structed building”, Paul-Georg told us. He spent the first few days asking students or his flat mates to walk with him around campus until he got someone from Student Support and Wellbeing to walk around with him. However, with all the walking he was doing, within the first couple of weeks of being at the University he was more familiar with the campus than his flat mates because Paul-Georg was determined to memorise the layout of the campus.
A common factor that Paul-Georg found was that non-disabled people didn’t know how to help someone with a disability. He mentioned that people would happily walk with him around campus but would either walk in front of him, or would not tell him where they were walking so he would have to focus on the sound of their footsteps. This is due to the lack of education surrounding disabilities taught to non-disabled people. It is not a subject that is openly discussed if you are able bodied and surrounded by able bodied people. This is partly because it is not thought about much but also because they don’t know what the correct thing to say is. Although the University is working with disabled students, there is still not enough awareness.
Change starts with openly discussing disabilities but also involving disabled students within the decisions about making improvements. Ultimately, to make effective changes you need someone with first-hand experience to help with it.
A former student of the University of Kent, Mike Oliver, was the founder of the social model of disabilities. He was a wheelchair user at Kent during the 1970s and pushed for change. The social model means that more responsibility is placed on society to help disabled people by including ramps to enter buildings, disabled toilets and even possibly adding a 3D map of the campus.
During our interview with Paul-Georg we discussed improvements that can be made to the University to increase accessibility for disabled students. He didn’t want to speak for all disabled students but what he raised were points that had been brought to his attention and wanted to share.
One of the issues he brought up was related to wheelchair access around campus. With the arrival of COVID-19 and social distancing in place, the clear screens between checkout points in shops were not positioned wide enough for wheelchair users. He also mentioned that a solution that was raised was for them to go around the back and be served there. Customers in a wheelchair should be able to have the same shopping experience as non-disabled customers and if this solution was put in place it would only highlight their disability even more.
Another issue was the lack of disabled toilets throughout campus. There are plenty of regular facilities but only a handful of disabled ones. He mentioned only knowing of one in the library and that the one in Rutherford college was more of a large room than a disabled toilet.
An improvement that Paul-Georg suggested was to include a noise for the doors, as being blind, he struggles to locate them. Another improvement, which links back to the lack of education surrounding disabilities, was for there to be more spatial awareness within the shops, as he has found that it has been hard to catch a staff members attention when he needs assistance.
The bus stop at Keynes was a major problem he talked about. He has found that because he can’t read the timetable he doesn’t know when the next bus is coming. Also, the buses don’t always stop directly in front the correct bus stop so he has been unaware of when the bus has arrived. An improvement for the bus stop that he mentioned was to include announcements as to when the next bus is and where it’s going, similar to what is at a train station. He also found that bus drivers are oblivious to disabled people waiting for a bus. By simply improving their awareness will also help because then disabled people will be gaining that extra bit of assistance outside of the University.
From this interview with Paul-Georg, I learnt that a lot more needs to be done than I had realised. I asked Paul-Georg if informational videos surrounding disability that students and staff could access on the website or Moodle would be helpful and he said “definitely, my main thing is yes the physical environment is by far not perfect but I do think if we get at least the social environment to change, to have a more open and inclusive community, then I think there will be more people on our side and to support us and to push for change and to also make physical changes.” A key component to these videos though would be to include disabled students talking about their experiences.
Something such as a 10-15 minute video would begin to eliminate the excuses of “I didn’t know that” from staff and students, especially if the University makes it a required video to watch before the start of the academic year.
When asked for some do’s and don’ts Paul-Georg said, in his opinion, “it helps generally to be more aware”. Of course this is easier to be said but taking time to listen is a small act with massive learning and improvement opportunities. Also disabled people are still people, who have feelings, can achieve amazing things and most can still do everyday tasks. So be open minded and ask how you can help or support them or if they need help or support because everyone is different. By starting to talk, listen, read and taking the time to learn, accessibility throughout campus will begin to improve because it needs to.