Last week I was supposed to attend a tutorial. Instead I wrote this. Not because I’m a bad student (although that is a separate argument we can have later). It’s because I couldn’t get to my tutorial.
Now it’s no surprise that UQ doesn’t really understand that elevators are a necessity, not just a luxury, for many people. After all, they have signs telling us to “Burn calories not electricity” by taking the stairs. And they are not the only ones.
I have resigned myself to the fact that it would be unreasonable for me to ask that all classrooms are accessible. I planned ahead. At sign-on I structured my timetable so that all my classes were on the ground floor or accessible by lift. I ended up with one class up a single flight of stairs because I wasn’t quick enough, but I can live with that. Apparently that wasn’t enough.
I didn’t sleep well on Monday night, thanks to a combination of crippling pain, nausea, and dizziness (but my side-effects are old news). So Tuesday morning I seriously considered the relative value of trying for an hour nap instead of attending my first class. I decided that there was simply no way I could afford to miss it, so I hustled myself off to St Lucia.
I parked in one of the disabled carparks out the front of Forgan Smith (conveniently located right next to some lovely stairs) and made the short trek to the law library to catch the elevator to my first class of the day. But that was not to be.
I entered the lobby to find the elevator doors open, which for one brief moment I thought was a huge burst of luck, as I wouldn’t have to wait for what any UQ law student could tell you is probably the slowest elevator any of us have ever been in. (But seriously: One friend who recently got back from exchange had forgotten how slow it was, and so started to worry that she had become stuck in a broken elevator.) It wasn’t luck though, because beside the open doors was a sign. “The lift is currently unavailable. We apologise for any inconvenience.”
Being forced to walk up four levels with at least a laptop and probably some textbooks too may be nothing more than an inconvenience for most people. But there is simply no way that I would be able to make it up stairs that leave fit long distance runners panting. Unfortunately, UQ does not have any system in place through which notice can be provided in advance, or alternative arrangements for class attendance can be made.
To be honest, this is probably a very small issue. Just under 20% of Australians have a disability. Add on to that the people with chronic illnesses (but not disabled) that make climbing that many stairs anywhere between difficult and dangerous, and you’re still left with a minority. It is entirely possible that I am the only person at UQ who gave this broken elevator a second thought.
I’m not trying to draw some audacious conclusion like ‘UQ is saying that I don’t have the right to an education’. That obviously isn’t the case. UQ simply doesn’t perceive accessibility to be as important as architectural design. This was just a reminder that I am an inconvenience, and it is my responsibility to find a way to participate in university.
Resigned to missing my class, I headed through the lobby to sit down on the ground floor of the library to at least try to get some study done.
With irony almost too good to be true, as I sat writing this on the ground floor, a couple of people sat down next to me, discussing how outrageous it is that “taxpayer dollars are being wasted because every new building is required to be accessible to disabled people”. I listened to how “the disabled” are asking too much. Aside from their presence in a university library, these individuals further demonstrated their level of education by casually listing four key forms of equality in their discussion: civil, political, social, and economic. Educated enough to elucidate exactly why they thought that “the disabled” only deserved some of those, because it was their own fault that they never achieve the others.
I nearly sat by silently, knowing that both eavesdropping (unintentional though it might be) and interrupting are very rude. Instead I leant over and said “Excuse me, I’m so sorry to interrupt but I just thought I might add another perspective.” They pair looked slightly surprised, but comfortable enough with the intrusion. After all, it’s not unusual for someone to lean over and start participating in a debate in the law library.
“I have a physical disability, and because that lift out there is broken I can’t go to one of my classes today.”
“That’s awful,” the girl said. I nodded in reply, and apologised again for interrupting. The boy’s response was slightly less productive, and included an assertion that while that was unfortunate for me, it wasn’t what he was talking about. He still considers my story to be the exception, not the rule. The idea of people ‘claiming’ to have disabilities actually being bludgers is pervasive, especially when young people are considered.
Despite what he, and many others, may think, people with disabilities are not seeking to inconvenience or disadvantage others. We are simply seeking the opportunity to participate in society as fully as possible. And it is in the interest of society to promote that, because increasing accessibility for people with disabilities makes life easier for everyone. It’s called the Curb Cut Effect. Basically, the curb cut which allows people using wheelchairs to access the sidewalk also make life easier for people with strollers, grocery trollies, cyclists, and plenty more. Side opening ovens don’t just help people who can’t bend and lift things, they reduce the strain on one’s back, allow kids to more safely assist with baking, and make it easier to avoid an accidental burn. There are plenty more examples. You would be astounded how many of your regular kitchen utensils were actually developed for easier use by people with a variety of disabilities. Making society accessible to everyone isn’t doing them a favour; it’s being a decent person.
I have tried and failed to think of an accommodation which has been made for people with disabilities which was not to the advantage of society at large. Failing that, I’ll throw in names of a few of many famous people with disabilities: Beethoven, Stephen Hawking, Helen Keller, Stevie Wonder, Franklin Roosevelt, and plenty more. That’s not even counting the huge number of people who you would never know have a disability (96% of people with chronic medical conditions show no outward signs of their illness).
Luckily for me, when I emailed my tutor/course coordinator asking if I could meet with her to talk over what I had missed, she kindly offered to email another tutor requesting they allow me to attend another tutorial this week. I did that, and only half the class laughed loudly when I explained to the tutor that I was in a tutorial I was not registered for because the lift was broken. The laughter stopped quite abruptly in favour of an awkward silence when I moved my cane.
I’m very glad for the fact that this course coordinator was so understanding, as others have been in the past when I share my particular set of circumstances, or at least upon seeing my official UQ Student Access Plan. I just hope that we’re moving towards a time where these exceptions don’t have to be made haphazardly, because we place priority on the accessibility of all areas of society to everyone.