What we need to learn about the campus experience of all our disabled staff, students and visitors
Earlier this year, Warwick signed up to be a member of the Business Disability Forum (BDF). BDF provides members with practical support by sharing expertise and providing training and networking opportunities which help our work with disabled staff, students and visitors. We’ve also established a Disability Standards Steering Group (which I chair) and this brings together key stakeholders from across campus to determine how we might best work towards meeting BDF’s Disability Standards.
One challenge that we face is that it is often difficult for someone who is not disabled to understand how what we see as commonplace can create challenges for others. So, earlier this year one of our Steering Group members, Jenny Wheeler, worked with the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team to run the ‘Wheelchair Challenge’, which required participants to navigate around campus in a wheelchair (and then feed back on their experience). I couldn’t participate at the time so Jenny agreed to run the challenge again in August for myself and Jane Openshaw from Estates, to help us to understand what it’s like to be a wheelchair user on campus.
We started off with one electric scooter and one manual wheelchair, with Jenny as our trusty guide and supervisor.
Our friendly trainee guide dog comes to see us off on the challenge.
It will probably sound clichéd, but this was a real eye-opener for me. I was lucky and started the challenge with the electric scooter, leaving Jane to get herself up the slope from Rootes in the manual wheelchair. I then transferred to the manual chair for a brief comfort break at the Oculus before heading to the Sports Centre, from where we tried to find our way into the Chemistry Building. Then it was back to the library before negotiating our way back to Rootes.
Hmm – going to the loo isn’t going to be as easy as I thought.
Getting into a disabled toilet is far more difficult than it looks and the camber on pathways can make steering and controlling a wheelchair an interesting experience. And even the slightest lip on a drop kerb can make a manual wheelchair user feel quite vulnerable. The biggest positives for me were people who were sensitive to the need to give you space and who were willing to offer a helping hand. The contractors working in campus at the time were great with regular offers of a helping hand (although Jenny did enjoy telling them that we had to do it ourselves!).
Not sure I’m actually going to make it through here.
The routes between buildings weren’t always obvious to a novice, but mostly we managed to work it out (although it often required quite a bit of creative problem solving on our part). Having said that, I’m not sure I actually managed to work out how to deal with my own need for a regular coffee fix. A steaming hot Americano and a manual wheelchair are not a good combination and Jenny’s top tip – never, ever try to hold your coffee cup between your thighs – was probably one of the best bits of advice of the day!
So this is how you get into Chemistry!
As I walked back to University House, I had time to reflect on the impact of both the physical environment and human behaviour on the ability of many disabled people to navigate campus. My immediate learning points related to the challenges associated with some design features in the physical environment and how other campus users might help (or not) someone with mobility issues. The experiences and challenges for those who may, for example, be blind or deaf will be very different but also probably not well understood by many of us. We still have much to learn about how we can improve the campus experience for all our disabled staff, students and visitors.