Disabled student wins £20k after university built library it knew would breach DDA

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A university which built a library it knew was inaccessible in order to cut costs has agreed to pay £20, 000 in compensation for discriminating against a talented disabled photography student.

Andrew Brenton (pictured, in a self-portrait) and other mobility-impaired students at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David were barred from the basement floor of the library for more than four months after he reported concerns about fire safety practices when a lift broke down at the start of the academic year in October 2013.

Disabled students are believed to have been using the building in Swansea since 2005, even though these flaws – including problems with communications, evacuation routes and fire exits – meant it had been unsafe, particularly for wheelchair-users.

Although the lift was fixed within a couple of weeks, disabled students were not allowed to use the basement of the library until the following February, as university authorities took that long to install the necessary safety improvements.

The basement floor of the library on the university’s Dynevor campus houses all of the photography literature Brenton needed for his three-year photojournalism degree course, which is entirely assessed on coursework, with students expected to spend hours every week browsing the books in the library.

Brenton also discovered that he should have been given a personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP) on the first day of his university course.

But despite complaining about this in October 2013, his PEEP was not completed until April 2014.

Brenton had begun his course at Swansea Metropolitan University, but at the end of his first year it merged with another institution to become the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD).

The institution’s inadequate safety procedures were highlighted in May 2014 when Brenton – who has mobility and other impairments – was abandoned in a stairwell of the library after a fire alarm sounded and the building was evacuated.

During a meeting following this incident, Brenton discovered that senior management were unaware that the university did not have a health and safety officer on its staff, and had not had one for some months.

After the university failed to deal with his concerns, he launched a legal action – with support from the Equality Advisory and Support Service and the Cardiff charity Race Equality First – claiming he had been discriminated against because the lift had been out-of-order for so long, and the university had failed to provide him with a PEEP at the start of his course.

He also complained about being left in the stairwell, and how a member of staff who left him there had made sarcastic comments to other students and staff about his impairment.

Brenton also claimed that a senior member of university staff refused him permission to record a meeting held to discuss his complaints in November 2013, and called off the meeting when he asked to be accompanied by his wife.

He says that both measures were reasonable adjustments needed because of his deafness, attention deficit disorder, and joint problems, which mean he cannot take legible and accurate notes.

The staff member told him he was not entitled to such reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act because he was “just a student”, an attitude that he said left him feeling “bullied and disempowered and belittled”.

He said the university’s apparent lack of concern for his safety and welfare had led to him feeling “anxious, devalued and worthless”, while the efforts to resolve the dispute had exacerbated his anxiety.

After he launched his complaint, he obtained an email that had been sent by Professor Ian Wells, the university’s pro vice chancellor for student experience, in which he said: “Privately I understand that much of the Dynevor building was constructed without taking into account DDA [Disability Discrimination Act] requirements, to save money and this has caused the lift problem.”

Despite the discrimination, Brenton graduated this summer with a first-class honours degree. He has now agreed to settle the case, and will be paid £20,000 compensation by the university.

He said he felt that the way he had been treated by the university was “almost like a betrayal of trust”.

He and his wife Michele have now submitted evidence to an inquiry into the impact of the Equality Act on disabled people, which is being carried out by a House of Lords committee.

They have told the committee they believe the key problems are with enforcement of the act, rather than the legislation itself.

Brenton said: “It’s up to the person who is being discriminated against to enforce the law. It is expensive and very stressful.”

If he had lost his case, he believes that he and his wife would have been left bankrupt by having to pay the university’s costs.

Brenton also said he did not believe that universities such as UWTSD would fill the gaps caused by planned cuts to disabled students’ allowance (DSA), with the government intending to force universities to fill these gaps through their duties to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.

He said: “They seem to struggle to comply with their legal obligations as it is. They will do as little as they possibly can in my opinion.”

He said that his case was “the tip of the iceberg” when it came to discrimination in education.

He added: “It seems to me that disabled people in education do not count.”

Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said: “We know from examples [like those of Brenton, Lesley Bayley-Bureau and Marina Bernstein, covered in recent months by DNS]that universities are not close to getting it right now.

“With the change in the funding responsibilities, I can only imagine that disabled students will be less and less likely to not only get their access requirements met but less and less likely to enter higher education in the first place.”

A UWTSD spokesman declined to answer several key questions about the case, but said in a statement: “The legal claims brought forward by Mr Brenton were defended and were compromised on the basis of no admission of liability by UWTSD.

“The University of Wales Trinity Saint David recognises its responsibility to properly control the risks to health of its staff, students and visitors, and reviews its health and safety policy annually.

“The university has a strategic equality plan and is firmly committed to promoting diversity and equality.

“UWTSD was recently a part of Swansea’s successful bid to gain ‘disability confident city’ status, the first UK city to achieve this.

“In conclusion, we would like to congratulate Mr Brenton on his excellent academic outcome following his studies at the university and wish him well for the future.”

Picture by Andrew Brenton

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  • Thank you for helping to publicise this John. The whole thing has been very stressful for Andrew and myself as his wife.

    • You’re welcome. You’ve both done other disabled people a great service in highlighting the discrimination in higher education.

  • TM

    Wow just found this, sounds as bad as my university. They built a brand spanking new building in 2005 with only a turnstile entrance that meant people had to wait by the fire escape and hope that security saw them so they could come and open the fire escape door.

    It took till the final year for them to do a fire risk assessment for me and the chair that was specifically supplied to me was constantly moved around by lecturers meaning that at least the first 10 minutes of a lecture were spent wondering round a mainly empty building (part time evening student) trying to track it down.

    My dyslexia tutor asked me at our first session what I was aiming for on the course when I said a 1st she told me to be more realistic. Then spent the rest of the session telling me she didn’t have a problem with lesbians and that lesbians (me being one of them) always but always fancy her.

    If you were dyslexic you were to plaster a great big green sticker over your work to make it easier for lecturers to identify you and mark appropriately….which they never did because they never checked spelling or references in anyone’s work, which meant that I had literally wasted hours and hours and hours on my course correcting and re-correcting. I also had one lecturer tell me I wasn’t dyslexic because I wrote too well. Never once stopping to understand that dyslexia is not about intelligence and that I worked twice as hard as anyone else to make sure that my work was a good as it could possibly be.

    The hard copy of materials and essay questions were not always the same as the online (blackboard) version meaning once I had less than 24hrs to rewrite a whole essay because I worked from the online materials.

    The final insult though and this one really really hurt was that in my Final year I applied to do an intensive Erasmus course that involved a two week trip to Hungary. I attended an information session and specifically asked about accommodation and access being the two most important things. The day before we flew all the accommodation was changed and we were moved from student halls with desks and internet access to a hotel which was in fact a knocking shop with no desks and only internet access in the lobby with very few chairs.

    The university was a twenty minute walk for the abled bodied students so would have took me at least twice as long. I missed dinner on arrival because after travelling I couldn’t make it to the restaurant and so was left to my own devices. The next morning I was furious with my university and told them in no uncertain terms how I felt they were treating me that they were prejudicing my study. After a whole day of toing and foring the course agreed to pay for taxi’s each morning and evening but I wasn’t allowed to take anyone else with me and felt very vulnerable travelling on my own. Lecturers spent the rest of the time there avoiding me…successfully.

    Unfortunately on the plane another student with a cold sat behind me and inevitably within days I caught it, problem being I have a low immune system and asthma and a cold for me is a chest infection which sets off a prolonged asthma attack and usually means oxygen and nebulisers and also slight problem of being allergic to the standard medication so decided it was safer not to seek medical help rather than risk a potentially fatal allergic reaction.

    I struggled on but in the 2nd week my voice packed in I couldn’t speak in full sentences and I had to give in and retreat to bed. A lecturer came to my room the day before we left to see how I was! He tried to physically walk into the room when I opened it and had to tell him to get out. That as far as they were concerned I could have been dead for the last four days and it hadn’t crossed his mind. In any case he had only really come to tell me that we were all getting picked up in the morning (other student groups from different uni’s) at the same time which meant that we had a 12 hour wait in the Airport.

    I was so upset that night I didn’t sleep and wrote an email to the head of the course about how utterly failed I felt, and that given that it was a Law course that I was on I was absolutely astounded that they didn’t understand their obligations to me as a student putting aside any human kindness.

    Her reply was “well I saw you smiling so thought you can’t be that bad” My reply was yes because disabled people always go around looking miserable and wringing their hands….she went on to tell me “you should have been more explicit about your needs when you applied for the course”. I was going to pursue them for disability discrimination but I had a dissertation to write and I’d just had enough and couldn’t physically carry around the anger and frustration that pursuing a complaint would have entailed.

    I know I’ve gone on a bit, I hadn’t quite realised how upset I still am about my experience at university and how it still makes me feel. But can well understand the stress and frustration that this must have inevitably created for Mr Brenton and family. I admire people who fight the fight and just wish I could do more.