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‘They strip me of my power and strength’: Hull University student ‘humiliated’ by lack of wheelchair access on campus

‘They have completely missed the mark on what accessibility and inclusion means,’ says Sarah-Marie Da Silva

Sophie Gallagher
Wednesday 12 February 2020 14:51 GMT

A student has criticised the University of Hull over the lack of wheelchair access on campus saying the institution has “completely missed the mark on what accessibility and inclusion means”.

On Wednesday Sarah-Marie Da Silva, a first year student of zoology, shared a photograph of herself, taken by her lecturer, on Twitter. It shows her sitting at the back of a lecture theatre unable to get down the stairs or sit with her peers.

The 21-year-old from Bedford says in the session last Friday she was unable to take notes or use equipment to record the lecture because she didn’t have a desk and couldn’t see the screen.

But far from a one-off experience, Da Silva tells The Independent that since she started in October 2019 she has experienced access issues “in pretty much every building” she has been into on campus – some of them are only three years old.

She explains: “Stair lifts are often broken or unusable. In the library, there is a slope to get to the reading room and there is no rail, which is a massive hazard, especially for those with mobility impairments,” she says.

“In the labs, I have the corner of a bench that is adjustable, everyone else has the whole bench. Which has meant that sometimes I can’t complete my entire practical.”

On another occasion Da Silva claims a lift shut closed on her arm because it didn’t sense her wheelchair. She reported the incident but says complaints have not been taken seriously by staff.

Da Silva says the problems with accessibility have “majorly” damaged her mental health. “I live a normal life, I play wheelchair basketball during the week and compete nationally, I go on days out with my boyfriend James, I spend time with my family, I look after my pets, I live a mostly independent life, then I go to university.

“The majority of the time, I am alone in lecture theatres where no one can sit next to me, I am on the floor with the lecturer and I feel segregated. I cannot be with my fellow students. My anxiety and depression? It’s been affecting me more than ever.

“I’m in the disabled community, I watch and play wheelchair basketball matches at the weekend and feel empowered, then I go to university and feel so incredibly small. I have no power or strength there, they strip me of it.”

She says other wheelchair users have experienced “the same thing” and says “we are made to move around, but the real issue is not being dealt with”.

Da Silva says she thinks this is a problem across all higher education and Hull is part of the wider problem rather than the exception. “Accessibility in higher education discourages those with disabilities to get a degree. If my life is hard, why put myself through the humiliation and frustration?”

She says that the problem will only be addressed when complaints are made known to those at higher levels of decision making and suggests if universities aren’t compliant with accessibility-needs then they should be fined.

“I think Hull University and many other universities, not just nationally, but internationally have allowed themselves to make it easier for themselves by ignoring us, but it’s time for them to take accountability for their actions of discrimination, isolation and prejudice,” she says.

In 2017, 13.2 per cent of students attending an English university or college reported having at least one disability.

Dr Anji Gardner, director of student services at the University of Hull told The Independent: “We are very sorry that this has happened, clearly it is not acceptable. We take these matters very seriously and a colleague from our student services team is now looking into what happened now.

“We are committed to working with our students to put in place any additional support or adjustments where needed. Unfortunately, it is clear this hasn’t happened in this case.

Gardner said the university also carries out independent accessibility surveys and audits and make "every effort" to ensure accessibility.

"As a university we are continuing to invest in and develop our campus and ensuring our buildings are accessible forms a large part of this." She also said the building in which the lecture theatre is, is listed and as a result they are unable to make structural alterations.

“We will immediately look into this and ensure that we take necessary steps to make sure this does not happen again.”

In 2019 the Office for Students found students who report a disability have lower degree results overall and lower rates of employment after graduation than non-disabled students.

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