Students with disabilities excluded from UCL libraries

It is a commonly acknowledged fact amongst UCL’s student population that library facilities leave a lot to be desired. But, whilst for abled-bodied students the libraries might seem as though they are filled with an unending litany of minor inconveniences, for those with disabilities they are often outright inaccessible. Representatives of SU UCL’s Disabled Students’ Network can easily point to a number of issues, from lifts that are too small for larger mobility aids (such as an electric wheelchair) to a lack of wheelchair accessible bathrooms. Certain UCL libraries don’t allow wheelchair users to enter inside.

Whilst the fifth floor Archaeology Library has step free access and can be reached via a lift, one of the emergency exit routes includes a single step. UCL has opted to resolve this issue by banning wheelchair users from entering the library due to safety concerns. This has meant that Kyle Jordan Lewis, a postgraduate Egyptology student who uses a wheelchair, has never been inside the Archaeology Library, despite having studied at the department for the last five years.

The university’s considerable lack of space seems to be part of the problem. Sandra Bond, the facilities manager at the Institute, has explained that although UCL did investigate the possibility of installing a ramp, it was decided that it would be too long to fit in the limited space of the library.
“We’re just unfortunate to be on the fifth floor.” Admitted one of the library staff. “There just isn’t enough room for us on the ground floor.”

An evacuation lift was installed at the Institute recently, however it only goes up to the fourth floor.

As things stand at the moment, when Kyle needs books from the Archaeology collection he has to make a special request for them to be delivered to the main library, where he is required to pick them up. This may seem like an amicable resolution, but the reality is quite different. It creates an unnecessary hinderance to Kyle’s research, as not only does he have to plan his library trips in advance, he also cannot browse the physical library shelves, making him entirely reliant on the online library service. Additionally, the current system means that Kyle has to collect books in bulk, which can be quite heavy, and is then left to transport them to a suitable study location.

The student union’s Disabled Students’ Network believes that the book collection system could be improved – the campus could include a designated study space where students who cannot enter other inaccessible libraries could pick up their books and also study without having to carry a heavy load. However, they realise that given UCL’s current issues – lack of space and ever-increasing student numbers the university is unlikely to prioritise the needs of students with disabilities.

“UCL follows a medical model of disability,” says Kyle. This means that the university views the student’s own medical condition as the source of their disability and limitations. “Instead, they should be following a social model of disability,” Kyle explains, suggesting that UCL should focus on the way the university is structured to exclude those who do not fit the fully-abled standard.

Our university was built with abled-bodied students in mind, and even as higher education institutions now have a legally binding duty to provide equal access and opportunity to students with disabilities, UCL seems to consider accessibility to be the problem of the student rather than the campus.

Weronika Strzyżyńska
Images: Elias Fedel