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“I have to spend this year alone”

“I have to spend this year alone”
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Unipol, the self-titled “home of student housing”, has told Leeds Student they may have only four fully accessible houses for disabled students. Unipol do not even have a search option on their extensive website for disabled students. The organisation failed to comment when approached by Leeds Student.

This was discovered as part of a long-term investigation by Leeds Student into the difficulties faced by the less able.

According to the June 2011 Disability Team Survey, at least 7.6 per cent of University of Leeds students are known to be disabled.  However, it is believed only half of students disclose their disability to the University.

There are approximately 30 students known to be blind or partially sighted, 76 have hearing impairments and at least 73 are wheelchair users. During our investigation, Leeds Student has looked into four key areas of student experience, revealing that less able students are ignorantly treated.

Accommodation

The University of Leeds has a brilliant reputation for providing accommodation, as one of the 46 Universities presently assessed under the Visit Britain (VB) Quality Assessment Scheme for Campus Accommodation in England and Wales. Though fully accessible rooms for disabled students are available, they typically cost more. For example, Charles Morris can cost a disabled student up to £160 a week, while Bodington Halls of residence costs approximately £80 a week, but its locationmakes it difficult to access for physically disabled students. According to the University’s Equality Services, some price differences can be compensated, but this depends on individual circumstances. However several disabled students told Leeds Student they were completely unaware of this offer of financial price-matching.

Robyn Brockie, the president of the Disabilities Society (DisSoc), told Leeds Student: “The lack of fully accessible accommodation for disabled students outside of Halls is very sad. Students are forced to pay the higher costs of staying in Halls, unable to share the common experience of living with friends they make during their time at university and this is detrimental to their experience.”

Second and third year students have the most difficulty when they wish to move out of halls of residence or live with able friends. One physically disabled student told Leeds Student of her accommodation troubles: “While living in Charles Morris I made friends on my floor, however when we looked around Leeds for accommodation to live together we couldn’t find anything. I asked the University if I could have some of the friends I had made to live with me in my third year, but they could not guarantee it. This means that my group of friends are living in houses a few streets away and I have to spend this year on my own.”

Charlie Hopper, Leeds University Union (LUU) Equality and Diversity Officer responded: “This experience highlights some of the many extra obstacles that students with disabilities face as part of uni life. Students who need accessible housing shouldn’t be prevented from living with the friends they meet in halls and I’ll be looking into how LUU can help work on this.” She added: “there are still many barriers to development off-campus.”

Nightlife

One of the most significant barriers to disabled students off campus is the nightlife of Leeds city centre. Although the average Leeds student may decide on a venue based on their favourite music, this may not always an option for a physically disabled student.

The Equality Act 2010 states that nightclubs should anticipate in advance the presence of disabled customers, and should have created some “reasonable adjustment” to accommodate them.

However, popular Leeds venues Hifi, The Wire and Smokestack provide no disabled access at all, explaining that it was “literally impossible” to install any system due to the nature of the buildings. However Anna Lawson, a senior lecturer in Disability Law, told Leeds Student: “The fact that the building is listed is no excuse for inaction. Requests can be made for consent to make alterations to listed buildings and failure to make these requests would generally amount to disability discrimination. In the 2009 case of Royal Bank of Scotland v Allen, the Court of Appeal found a bank in Sheffield liable for disability discrimination because it had not provided wheelchair access to a listed building.”

Jess, a third year Maths student, describes what this lack of access means for disabled students: “Some bars and clubs in Leeds do not have disabled access. This means that if a society organises a bar crawl, for example a spontaneous decision to go to Wire, I have to go home. Also, I once went to use the disabled toilet in a bar and found it being used as a store cupboard. I shouldn’t have to go along the street looking for another free bar just to use the toilet.”

She added: “I have also experienced issues with being let into clubs because it is ‘too dangerous’ for me to be inside, even after myself and my friends have purchased tickets. I once got told that if I wanted to stay in the club I had to arrive before midnight. Experiences like this are embarrassing at the door and it’s patronising to tell a 21 year old like myself the safety issues of being in over-populated clubs. I am well aware of these and I am happy to take the risks that all students do when partying in these kinds of places. After all, I just want to have a good night out.”

One physically and mentally disabled girl was refused entry to a city centre karaoke bar after being accused of being drunk by security staff.

Studying

A recent investigation into differential degree attainment by the government has inspired the University of Leeds to research whether or not it is harder for disabled students to gain higher grades. The results are set to be published in the next few months. The National Union of Students (NUS) claims that the National Student Survey (NSS) show disabled students are “significantly less satisfied than their peers in every area”.

However, the University says it is attempting to make life manageable for disabled students. This summer it spent £60,000 on accessible equipment for teaching rooms. The University has a legal obligation to take such measures. This includes being obliged to support and match funding when Student Finance fails to effectively provide services for disabled students. Disabled students have told of their difficulties in applying for student finance with many relying on Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). The President of DisSoc highlighted the implications of this: “Failure to reimburse students for agreed expenses has caused hardship”.

Even if a student discloses their disability at the start of an academic term, funding for DSA is not provided until December. Physically disabled students who have no choice but to catch taxis to university are also not reimbursed until months later, if at all. Student Finance also fails to currently provide any alternative form-filling device for blind students, meaning they rely on assistance to begin the process. Disabled international students are excluded from DSA.

“Love your time at Leeds”

LUU is a key aspect of student life for any University of Leeds student. For the disabled, the Union boasts its own disabled society (DisSoc), and won a Higher Education Union of the Year award at the NUS Disabled Students Campaign Conference in March 2011. However, many areas still fail to be fully accessible for disabled students. When Leeds Student met DisSoc, it was apparent the lifts were a huge issue many members faced. The President of DisSoc disclosed that she had been trapped in a Union lift twice in the past year: “My understanding is that this lift, which is the only one which allows access to the 2nd floor where Volunteering and Community  meetings rooms are, is locked by security by 8pm most nights. As the meeting rooms are open later, and issues with students being able to get in the ‘locked’ lift and become trapped have been identified, this is not acceptable but I am confident the issue will be resolved.”

A new lift has recently been installed at the back of the Refectory, allowing students to access the back of the building. However, it is apparent many disabled students have not been provided with access to the lift, which Sarah, a Social Work student explained:“It’s really annoying because I have a manual wheelchair which means I have to push myself up those winding hills.”

Another disabled student described her issues with Stylus: “The lift onto the dance floor has never worked during my time at Leeds so far. For gigs this is not so much of an issue, but when I’m paying to go to events such as Fruity I get told that I have to stay on the balcony. Watching people dance from far away prevents it from being an enjoyable experience.”

Hopper responded to this issue: “The Union nightclubs, like so many other venues across Leeds, simply aren’t accessible enough. I’m working hard to improve this, and we’ll be spending thousands of pounds this year to make access a priority by restoring the lifts in both Stylus and Mine.”

On the whole, disabled students in Leeds have praised the University in their efforts to accommodate and

support students, especially in relation to the Equality Services department. Though is evident that despite the city’s progress in providing for those with physical disabilities, there is still a great deal of ignorance and lack of foreward planning. Awareness still needs to be raised and more of an effort needs to be made by all of us to help ensure that all students can get the most out of their time at Leeds.

For more information on support offered to disabled students, please contact the Equality services which is located in the Social Sciences building.

To join DisSoc, please email Robyn Brockie dissoc@live.co.uk.

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