Disclaimer: I’m not going to disclose what university I go to, nor its location, nor reference their accessibility practices (and/or lack thereof), as that would be inappropriate.
I’m also not going to name-drop unis that are a nightmare for anyone with disabilities (also known as impairments, a term I prefer to use) or favour certain universities for their ‘ranking’ relative to others, a system pioneered by Thatcher’s government with upper-class interests in mind. A cruel, brutal system that disproportionally affects folx with impairments as well.
Beyond academia, policymaking & liberation circles, not much is said around university accessibility. It’s something that the ‘average’ person generally takes for granted. Is there a hearing loop? Content warnings in videos? Voice-recordings of lectures available to students? Resources to catch up after a health-related absence? Easy-to-read text on slideshows? Wheelchair accessibility throughout campus?
Recent campaigns have drawn attention to ‘invisible’ disabilities, but equality for all forms of impairment is far off, especially in cases of rarer disabilities with less public awareness. Many university students & staff remain uneducated to the dimensions in which campuses are exclusionary, which is highly concerning when ableism can stem from a lack of awareness.
There are so many dimensions to university accessibility (see below). And I don’t pretend to know of them all. Some I can relate to, others I’m privileged not to have personally experienced.
- Curricula: Does it have content warnings within topics as appropriate? Can students physically access classes where the course is taught? Is the course taught in ways that are engaging and effective for all students? Is disability awareness promoted by university staff constructively & informatively?
- Assessments: Do they exist in a range of formats to give each student opportunity to thrive? Are they flexible to student access arrangements? Is assessment information available to all students for reference? Are extenuating circumstances considered when appropriate to?
- Buildings: Do they have ramps, suitable doors, lifts, braille, and induction systems? Are there accessibility-friendly rooms within student halls of residence? Are the university estates department amenable to modifying university infrastructure as appropriate?
- Policy & Systems: Does legislation support and protect students? Is any form of impairment overlooked or ignored? Does the university have internal systems in place to ensure that it is as accessible as possible for all students? Do students know staff whom they can talk to if accessibility issues arise? Is disability-related discrimination dealt with appropriately by staff?
And these are just a few examples. Issues activists confront daily. However, universities often won’t spend money on accessibility features beyond the legal minimum. Although the Equality Act (2010) now protects a student’s right to have their disability, or disabilities, accommodated by their university, many ‘duck and dive’ when the m-word gets involved.
Universities operate as for-profit ‘businesses’, and to make more profits, often prioritise income from tuition fees on marketing to attract future students, increasing annual turnover at the expense of students with impairments, who may need additional support or accommodations. With 8% of UK students possessing an ‘unseen disability’ (for instance, dyslexia) and approximately 6% with physical impairment(s), budget allocation in favour of marketing is clearly detrimental to students already enrolled.
Moreover, value-for-money is reduced further for students in unis with high levels of inaccessibility, a factor that affects working-class to the greatest extent in the long-term. Although a minority of universities have improved accessibility levels dramatically following Equality Act legislature, there is still much work to be done, especially in Russell group universities which are statistically likelier to be inaccessible to students. This is because of historic building design and archaic attitudes towards disability that are held by some senior staff.
However, with the power to re-allocate university budgeting in the hands of the people at the top of the hierarchy, should we really be surprised? While universities operate on a for-profit basis, accessibility will always remain low-priority to their management. Thus, for universities to become truly ‘accessible’, we need radical structural change. Universities as a place of learning, not of profit. It’s in everyone’s best interests, except for the Vice Chancellor and private investors of course!