Accessibility is Not an Afterthought

Written by Anna Barnardwright and Zoe Tongue

With its steep hills, cobbled streets and dainty tea rooms, Durham is certainly not the most wheelchair friendly city, but does Durham University have an issue with inclusivity when it comes to disabilities?

Recently, one Durham University college ‘forgot’ to check if the venue for their JCR alumni reunion was wheelchair accessible – despite knowing this would prevent some guests being able to attend. This event was in London; with 7,000 bars, it’s not exactly a difficult place to find one accessible venue when all it takes is a quick call or email to check. Bearing in mind colleges employ people specifically to organise such events, it was left up to one alumnus who uses a wheelchair, unsure if she would be able to attend the event, to contact the venue herself. The venue was changed, apologies made, not such a big deal, right?

Photo credit: Jamie Murphy

Fast forward a few months to the next alumni event at the same college. Unbelievably, that exact mistake was made for the second time as the college again booked another inaccessible venue. The college again apologised and defended their decision as an innocent oversight, but the original venue stuck. It may have been an honest mistake the first time, but when the same thing happens so soon after being highlighted as a problem, it’s pure ignorance, disrespect and disregard for universal representation. It’s time we questioned how many uncomfortable mistakes can be made before someone is held accountable.

Disabled access isn’t an issue specific to this college, but a university-wide problem in Durham. Durham Students’ Union, the body established to represent every student, is based in an old multi-story building which only offers an unreliable stair lift. A wheelchair space was only introduced to the Night Bus service recently after years of lobbying from Disability Reps. Lectures are repeatedly moved to inaccessible rooms, even for courses where physically disabled students are enrolled. The Law School’s 2017 graduation day event was inaccessible and reluctant to relocate and break ‘tradition’. Some of the city based colleges are unable to enroll students reliant on wheelchairs as their beautiful historic buildings only have narrow stepped entrances.

Photo credit: Jamie Murphy

Accessibility should not be an afterthought. Representation is not an afterthought. Forgetting, making a mistake, or not researching properly isn’t good enough. So why is that excuse always used in relation to disability? The Equality Act 2010 doesn’t state that discrimination has to be intentional; excluding people based on disability, gender identity, race, religion, or sexuality, IS discrimination by law when it is not reasonable. It’s certainly not reasonable to overlook people with disabilities. All members of the student community should be afforded the same rights, consideration and access. Those who protest should not be intimidated or made to feel like a burden on others. Durham prides itself on democracy and inclusivity so something at our university needs to change.

Thoughts? We’d love to hear from you.
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