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August 3, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Attitudes to Access

There are two things most newbie students notice on their first day at Victoria University. The first is that the Kelburn campus is up a huge, enormous, gigantic hill (read: mountain). Many have said it, it’s not the most conventient or practical location for a university in this fine city. The second thing that tends to be noticed is that it’s really hard to find your way around. Maclaurin suddenly morphs into Cotton, Easterfield turns into Kirk and I’m fairly sure there’s an overbridge somewhere.

Getting to know your way around any of Vic’s campuses is a process of trial and error. It is a test of one’s map reading skills and one’s ability to be able to follow the arrows on signs. It helps to have a keen sense of direction when trying to navigate the many, many hallways and corridors. The use—or misuse—of the aforementioned skills can lead to the (un)intentional discovery of shortcuts, staircases and mysterious overbridges.

Finding your way around a new place is, for most people, a challenge. But being disabled and trying to find your way around presents an entirely new set of challenges, barriers and obstacles. Think for a minute what it could be like to use a wheelchair, or have a vision impairment. Then think about how you would get from A, say the Student Union Building, to B, the leacture theatres in Maclaurin.

Physical access around Victoria University has improved remarkably over the last 15 or so years. Some of that is the result of disability issues coming to greater prominence in the community. The movement for the greater recognition of the rights of disabled people has gained greater momentum, and has affected significant change in attitudes towards disabilities.

A Disabling Society

Being disabled means different things for different people. But what exactly is a disability? “It’s a temporary, recurring or long-term condition, illness or injury that affects a student’s learning, communication, concentration, memory, hearing, mobility, movement, speech and/or vision. It also includes members of the deaf community, and people who have mental health impairments,” says the Manager of Victoria University’s Disability Support Services (DSS) Rachel Anderson-Smith.

DSS provides a range of support services for Vic’s disabled students, including note-takers, mobility vans, writers for exams and parking permits. Robyn Hunt, a part-time commissioner responsible for disability issues at the Human Rights Commission, believes that there cannot be a simple all-encompassing definition for the term ‘disability’, given that people understand disabilities differently.

Hunt says that it is not her physical impairment that makes her disabled, rather it is “society and the community that disables me.”

“I am disabled by the world I live in,” 
she says.

The New Zealand Disability Strategy affirms this view: “Disability is not something individuals have… Disability is the process which happens when one group of people create barriers by designing a world only for their way of living, taking no account of the impairments other people have.” Hunt says that about 20 percent of the New Zealand population is affected by a disability of some form.

In 2008, Anderson-Smith says that there were about 600 people at Vic registered with DSS. “We’re almost at that number this year… We’ve grown almost 30 percent,” she says.

“Suddenly there is a big wave of students with disabilities registering with DSS, more than ever before.”

According to DSS statistics, almost four percent of the university population has identified, either through registering with DSS, or indicating on their enrolment form, that they are disabled.

For the university demographic, this figure should be more like 13 percent. “There’s a long way to go before we’re representative of the wider community but we’re steadily increasing,” Anderson-Smith says.

A Checkered History

Access is one of the most important issues facing disabled students at university and in the wider community. “Access means everything,” Hunt says.

“It means being able to get in and out of buildings, it means being able to move around in buildings, it means being able to move around in the community and in the streets, it means accessible transport and really importantly, it means access to information.”

For DSS, access has two components. “There’s a physical component where we ensure that students with impairments have equitable access to the physical university environment, so that’s everything from buildings, navigating your way around, signage and so on. The other part is teaching and learning,” says Anderson-Smith.

The Kelburn campus, perched atop the hill, is not an easy place to make accessible. Anderson-Smith admits there are inherent difficulties with the Kelburn campus site. However, she says that “through good signage, good design, good awareness of disabilities, a lot of those barriers can be dissipated.”

Victoria hasn’t had a squeaky clean record on appropriate access for disabled students. In 1994, a complaint was made to the Human Rights Commission regarding the relocation, without consultation, of the Sociology and Social Work department from the von Zedlitz building to a building near the end of Fairlie Terrace.

Two masters students withdrew from their studies as a result of the relocation. There was inadequate wheelchair access at the new site, and there were obvious difficulties for the students in getting from the main part of the campus to Fairlie Terrace.

Paul Gibson a former VUWSA President, and early member of Can-Do—the group representing disabled students on campus—says that a resolution to the complaint was negotiated in 1996, with an overall positive outcome for students and the university. A raft of changes were implemented as a result.

Invisible No More

Awareness of disability issues improved in the early 1990s as a result of a number of national and international initiatives. In 1993, the New Zealand Human Rights Act incorporated disability as a grounds for discrimination. Furthermore, a United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was developed, and was ratified by the New Zealand Government.

“There was a huge increase in the number of students who identified as disabled students over that time, it really skyrocketed,” Gibson says. “We were drawing in more students from other tertiary catchment areas to Victoria to study because of the support that was offered at that time, despite the fact that the campus is far from flat and there’s a few physical challenges.”

Since the 1994 complaint, there have been obvious improvements to physical access at Victoria. Both former and current students with impairments that affect their mobility have said that there are few barriers to getting around the Vic campuses. Simon Thurston, a recent Vic graduate who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchairs says that “once you find all the shortcuts and know where all the lifts are, it’s really easy to get [around].”

Current third-year student Catherine Soper, who has cerebral palsy, doesn’t find many obstacles to getting around university. “Personally I find it pretty good because I’m not hugely immobile. I don’t use a wheelchair and I only sometimes use walking aids, so I am capable of getting up steps if need be,” she says.

“There are probably some places where there could be a bit more lift access… It is kind of bitchy walking up the stairs all the time.”

In addition to the New Zealand building standard relating to accessible design, there is also a code of practice published by the Ministry of Education and the Tertiary Education Commission—Kia Orite—that outlines standards for ensuring an inclusive tertiary education environment for students with impairments.

The code incorporates a vision that “students have equitable access to the physical environment within the tertiary institution in which they will study, learn, live and take part.”

At Vic, the Access Committee is given the responsibility for ensuring that this vision is achieved. The Committee is assigned $50,000 annually, a sum of money that Anderson-Smith says gets used up “really quickly”.

The Access Committee has undertaken several key projects this year, including the refurbishment of the Sutherland Room on the third floor of the library, and contributing to a university-wide signage project.

“You’re sometimes not aware of all the little things which make a big difference when you have a disability,” Anderson-Smith says.

“For example, the stair nosing at the edge of stairs, it’s just a little bright yellow strip, but if it isn’t there, the stairs can merge into each other for someone who has a vision impairment and suddenly that becomes a health risk.”

The signage project, Anderson-Smith believes, will benefit not only students with disabilities, but all visitors to the university. “For the first time, signage is going to be high contrast, is going to be big font and is going to be easily read from a distance.

“It sounds simple, but it’s a huge thing.”

The signage project coincides with the improvement of the accessible route around campus, which is not, at the moment, clearly marked. “Currently you have to look on a map or be advised by DSS,” Anderson-Smith says.

“It’s hard to know the route. It shouldn’t be rocket science to know how to get around this university when you’re using a wheelchair or have a vision impairment. It’s actually quite simple when you know it, but it’s quite complex when you don’t. So we want to change that.”

The completion of the Campus Hub is expected to enhance the accessible route further.

While Vic is still not 100 percent perfect in terms of physical access, it is agreed that the campuses are more accessible now than they have been in the past, despite the unique obstacle posed by the Wellington landscape. Further improvements will take time and money.

Need for Understanding

Attitudes towards disability still remain the biggest barrier to the inclusion of disabled people in the wider community. However, changing attitudes towards disabilities are evident at Vic.

“I think we’ve come a really long way at Victoria University towards understanding and being accepting of people with disabilities. The culture here is definitely much more inclusive and accepting than it was, for example, even just four years ago,” Anderson-Smith says.

“I’m not saying things are perfect, but we really noticed a big change with people’s attitudes.”

Neither Catherine nor Simon have experienced discrimination because of their disability while at university. “At uni, it’s full of educated people, so they’re going to be a lot more aware and perhaps not bound by certain prejudices. I haven’t had any big problems,” Catherine says.

Simon agrees that awareness about disabilities has increased “in leaps and bounds” over the last few years. “Anyone can become disabled, you can break a leg tomorrow and be in a wheelchair for the next six weeks. It’s a bit of putting yourself in that position and thinking about it,” he says. Young people, Anderson-Smith believes, play a huge role in changing attitudes towards disabilities. “Young people can be extraordinarily influential in changing the discourse around disability, they have been historically and they will continue to be.”

“Students are often the leaders of change and it’s wonderful that we’re seeing that change,” she says.

“Universities were traditionally quite a Darwinist place, survival of the fittest, and we’re seeing that that’s no longer the case.”

Non-disabled people, too, have an important role to play in breaking down attitudinal barriers. Listening to the needs of disabled people and gaining a greater understanding of how they want to be treated is a good place to start.

“Don’t be freaked out or weirded out by disability, because it’s not like a big deal,” Catherine says.

“We don’t want to be treated differently, or more nicely, like ‘oh poor thing, he’s disabled, let’s be nice to him’. We’re just ordinary people. Still be aware, it’s always nice when someone will give you a hand when you’re struggling with a heavy door, or struggling with something heavy that you’re carrying, just don’t make a huge deal out of it.”

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About the Author ()

Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

Comments (1)

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  1. f says:

    HMMM!
    The last few days there’s been a merc parked in the disability parking space on Kelburn Parade.

    Does it have a disability sticker on it?

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