Disabled students have launched a new campaign aimed at convincing their university to address the discrimination they face on campus.
They say the University of Exeter (pictured) is plagued by access barriers and a failure to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.
It is just the latest British university to face criticism for discriminating against its disabled students, with Disability News Service (DNS) previously reporting on concerns about Glasgow University, the University of Cambridge, University College London, the University of Hull, the University of Leeds, London South Bank University and the University of Liverpool.
Among the concerns raised by the new campaign are the shortage of accessible parking bays and lifts – many of which are old and outdated – while students with invisible and fluctuating conditions find it particularly difficult to secure the support they need.
The campaigners also say that signage in campus buildings is poor, there is a shortage of accessible accommodation for disabled students, and the university has failed to address the barriers caused by the location of its main campus on a steep hill.
One autistic student has refused to attend further lectures related to autism after they said their lecturer had described autistic people as “retarded”.
And the failure to make reasonable adjustments for dyslexic students in the “peer marking” system – where students mark each other’s work – means other students are forced to mark down those who are dyslexic.
The campaign also says the university has failed to make any meaningful provision for disability sport, such as coaching, training facilities or opportunities for competition, even though the university brags of investing more than £25 million in its sports facilities and services over the last 10 years.
A petition supporting the campaign has secured hundreds of signatures.
Scarlett Aylen (pictured), the disabled geography student who founded the campaign, told DNS there were many disabled students at Exeter who faced problems securing the reasonable adjustments they needed.
Maisie Dowding, who is supporting the campaign, said that disabled students “already have to struggle to get to university”, but at Exeter – which she said claims to be “very good” at supporting its disabled students – it had been “a constant battle to get the assistance I need”.
Skye Dunstar, another disabled student supporting the campaign, said: “The inaccessibility of the campus is a barrier for disabled students.
“Many other universities with similarly hilly campuses have either increased their disabled spaces near to campus buildings or have implemented different points of access into the buildings – neither of which Exeter have implemented.”
When she began her degree, she was shown a back entrance into the library building, and a nearby lift, which would have cut out a steep walk to the entrance, but she was told it was for staff use only.
The university has defended its treatment of disabled students.
He said: “We have already completed, or are in the process of completing, many of the actions suggested in the petition and we hope to meet with those involved to discuss further steps that can be taken.
“At the University of Exeter, students with unseen disabilities receive similar support and adjustments to other disabled students.
“This can include support from specialists, using specialist software, consideration given to assessment deadlines, alternative examinations and personal support assistants.
“In line with our responsibilities set out in the Equality Act 2010 and the public sector equality duty, when we are notified of a need to make reasonable adjustments, due regard is given to comply and avoid any disadvantage.
“We start working with all students who tell us they have a disability or additional needs before they arrive at university to ensure they have an individual learning plan in place, reasonable adjustments to their accommodation and other support in place so any barriers to learning are minimised.
“We dedicate financial resources each year to make our campuses more accessible and comply with all equality legislation.
“In recent years we have invested in new accessible bedrooms in halls of residence, hearing loops, a vibrating fire alarm call alert system, lifts and stair lifts, ramps and more automated doors and additional accessible parking spaces.
“Those on students sport committees receive training from the University of Exeter’s equality, diversity and inclusion team.
“The Russell Seal Centre has inclusive fitness machines and accessible changing spaces.
“We also run taster sessions across the academic year in disability specific sports, including wheelchair basketball, boccia, table cricket and wheelchair tennis.”
He added: “Harassment, bullying, intimidation and discrimination go against all we stand for and will not be tolerated.
“We would encourage anyone who has experienced or witnessed any of the above to report it immediately and to get the support they might need – the Exeter Speaks Out resources are available to help report incidents quickly.”
But Aylen was dismissive of the university’s response.
She said: “The university always says it’s going to fix our problems, but it never does.
“I feel like if I sit and do nothing, nothing will change for years and years, until maybe an equality lawsuit appears, and they will do one small thing to sort out the case of discrimination.
“We need the changes for the students who are in the university currently and we need them now.”
She added: “The university has created a system where you can talk to special advisors about discrimination.
“This is a talking service, confidential and is just so you can have your voice heard. Nothing gets done and everything you say doesn’t go past the advisor.
“We don’t want councillors to help us accept that the uni is breaking the law, we want fast change.”
She said the opportunities for disabled students in sport were nowhere near the level for non-disabled students and that “para sports cannot be simply limited to a ‘wheelchair basketball taster session’”.
She said the barriers faced by herself and other disabled students were “so appalling that I simply cannot put our frustration and anger into words”, and there had been “absolutely no improvements recognised by disabled students” and any action taken “a bare minimum”.
She said the university “cannot possibly know about half of the barriers presented in the petition when they haven’t even asked the disabled student population”.
Aylen said changes she had proposed a year ago were supposedly being “researched” for development, but a year on nothing had changed.
She added: “Many students I have spoken to have told me they are afraid to complain in case they are harassed by the university or face undeserved punishment indirectly, like in their academic results, hence they wish not to be named.
“This kind of culture is not something that is acceptable in today’s society.
“My life and the lives of the other students at the University of Exeter are being negatively impacted as a result of the lack of disabled inclusion and access.
“This is going to affect us for the rest of our lives, and I will not stand by and let this happen.”
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