Disability row at Birkbeck graduation ceremony


A disabled postgraduate has refused to attend her graduation ceremony, claiming she feels her university did not give her enough consideration after it tried and failed to fully accommodate her needs.

Madeline Rees, 23, who has muscular dystrophy and requires a mobility scooter to get around, was initially told by the events team at Birkbeck University there would be no problems with her attending graduation on Thursday April 25 shortly after she had purchased her cap and gown.

But soon afterwards the University, in London’s Russell Square, informed her that the stage would be inaccessible to her scooter due to a steep flight of steps.

In an email shared with The Independent, the university told her it might be easier for her to be sat on stage throughout the ceremony, as well as to ensure the ‘smooth running’ of the day, held at the Institute of Education, next to Birkbeck.

“I’m not a banner to be set up on stage, I’m a human being. I did not want to be paraded around,” Ms Rees, who studied an MA in Museum Cultures at Birkbeck, said. “Worse still, the email implied my mobility scooter would disrupt the ceremony.

“Graduation is about spending time with your university peers and I wasn’t allowed to do that. There was no consideration to pick a venue with full accessibility.”

The university also offered Ms Rees the chance to use a wheelchair so that she could sit with her friends and be brought onto the stage from a back entrance when it was time to accept her degree certificate.

A spokesperson from Birkbeck University said: “The venue we use is compliant with disability access regulations. We have been advised that a ramp to access the stage, even a temporary one, is not something that can be built in this hall.

“The stage is fully accessible via the backstage area and students who are unable to use the stairs are seated in the hall with fellow graduates until briefly leaving their peer group to gain access to the stage.

“Birkbeck is committed to being inclusive in our approach to graduation ceremonies. We do our very best to accommodate the needs of all students and their families on what is a very special occasion and celebration of their academic achievement.”

Ms Rees responded: “According to Birkbeck, disability is a one-size-fits-all situation. I completely understand that some buildings have their restrictions but frankly Birkbeck would have had much less work to do if they had simply booked a venue with a ramp.

“I’m disappointed I couldn’t graduate with my classmates as there were a lot of international students on my course who came over just for the ceremony and I didn’t get to see them. But I couldn’t attend yesterday, it was too discomforting for me.”

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