Campus accessibility is among the most pressing issues that need tackling in UCD: the University Observer sits down with the SU President and the Welfare Officer to discuss the state of things - and what might work moving forward.
UCD’s Belfield campus accommodates the majority of the university’s student population. Between educational buildings, residences and hang-out spots, Belfield is where those enrolled at UCD spend most of their student experience. As such, you would expect it to be accessible to as many students as possible to ensure a pleasant experience as part of the UCD community. However, accessibility is amongst the main issues UCD still faces, with its infrastructure often hindering inclusivity to students with different disabilities.
Accessibility is amongst the main issues UCD still faces, with its infrastructure often hindering inclusivity to students with different disabilities.
SU President Martha Ní Riada and Welfare Officer Jill Nelis are aware of the accessibility issues of the Belfield campus, which they discuss with The University Observer. “There aren’t a lot [...] there definitely could be more, that’s something I’m trying to work on this year”, said Nelis, asked about current provisions to ensure accessibility across campus. Both sabbats agree, however, that the existing accessibility policies are “the bare minimum” rather than clear measures to ensure disabled students feel included on campus. For instance, Jill Nelis elaborates that the inclusion of ramps and other accessible-friendly provisions when building campus spaces are “put in because they are being told that they have to [...] They [accessible-friendly measures] are thought ... to tick a box.” Ní Riada agrees, and adds that it would help for UCD to have someone who “has knowledge and knows what is actually needed and talks to ... students within the UCD community that need it [accessibility measures].” An issue with this provision, Nelis concedes, is the numerous ways disability can manifest, which results in certain measures not being suitable universally: “All dissects of disabilities have very exclusive needs.”
Nelis’ and Ní Riada’s words uncover one of two underlying issues with accessibility in UCD that emerged during our conversation. The first of these is the lack of a campus-wide approach to accessibility - and, by extension, the absence of a strategy to ensure all campus spaces are inclusive. On this matter, both officers concur that, whilst strategies can recommend a course of action to ensure full accessibility, it is the responsibility of each individual school to implement measures to render their respective buildings accessible. However, to Nelis, “the compartmentalising of access to each department means that nobody’s needs are being met, because it’s being too divided.” Consequently, the segregation of accessibility results in the University experience of disabled students also being segregated in the buildings they can access. To Martha Ní Riada, such a situation prevents disabled students from an inclusive university experience: “someone's experience of the university shouldn’t be segregated into different buildings. People need to be able to use everything, and also students [...] should be able to access things in the same way.”
Prospective measures to counter the segregation of accessibility within the university is the second prominent theme of our conversation. Specifically, Jill Nelis explains how disabled students in UCD need to rely on self-advocacy to ensure their respective needs are met. For instance, disabled students need to contact the school they are enrolled to and explain their specific needs - whether these involve alternative assessment arrangements or holding classes in accessible buildings. Having to advocate for themselves, over time, can become a strain for disabled students, since it requires them to explain themselves - and their subjective experience - constantly and hope that their school will take their needs into account. Self-advocacy does not always translate into victories, since often “disabled people [...] get beaten down very quickly”, Jill Nelis explains. An example that Nelis provides in this regard is students who need to change lecture rooms for their classes and might resort to “leave(ing) ten minutes early from one lecture to get to the other lecture on time.” Therefore, the lack of a comprehensive approach to accessibility, coupled with the difficulties in affirming one’s self-advocacy successfully, means that disabled students often have to sacrifice part of their learning experience to accommodate their needs. Additionally, relying on “the kindness of the world”, in Nelis’ words, is not always doable.
The lack of a comprehensive approach to accessibility, coupled with the difficulties in affirming one’s self-advocacy successfully, means that disabled students often have to sacrifice part of their learning experience to accommodate their needs.
Self-advocacy is especially difficult for people with “invisible” disabilities - that is, conditions that do not manifest physically, such as autoimmune diseases and learning impairments including ADHD and dyslexia. And whilst provisions such as the Needs Assessment exist, Martha Ní Riada admits that the Extenuating Circumstances policy is often more thorough, yet it covers unforeseen events rather than ongoing conditions. In this respect, self-advocacy manifests through disabled students having to apply for Extenuating Circumstances numerous times throughout the academic year to ensure their needs are taken into account. Nevertheless, Extenuating Circumstances applications are also sorted by each school individually.
Jill Nelis is particularly saddened by the unfairness of the current state of things, claiming that accessibility measures “should be something that is catered for as soon as they [disabled students] enrol.” Nelis also adds that, “The student voice should always be the loudest voice when discussing the student but this should not be something that they have to fight for.” The Welfare officer hopes that, moving forward, disabled students will be put at the centre of conversations about disability, so that their voices are heard and their needs catered for. To Nelis, establishing a Feedback group composed of officials from the university and a pool of disabled students could be a good place to start a conversation about campus accessibility that centres the needs of disabled students enrolled at UCD. Furthermore, centering the students’ direct experience could be effective for UCD to uphold their “University for All” pledge and, consequently, becoming an inclusive environment where disabled students feel welcome and can enjoy a pleasant college experience alongside their peers.
As Welfare officer, Nelis invites students to come forward should they experience any form of discrimination during their time in UCD.
Nelis acknowledges that accessibility is not a UCD-exclusive problem - but a wider, systemic issue. Nevertheless, as Welfare officer, Nelis invites students to come forward should they experience any form of discrimination during their time in UCD: “as the welfare officer [...], as a disabled person, [...], as a wheelchair user, that [accessibility] is my concern. [Students] shouldn’t have to fight fights alone [...] I’m there and I’m ready to do it for them.”