Content warning: discussion of institutional ableism.
As a research student, one of the most immediate changes I’m having to make in response to ME is my study habits. I mean this not only in terms of the time I spend studying, but also where I do so. As such, I’m going to use this blog post to comment on the accessibility of study spaces. The matter of what problems I’ve spotted is doubtless affected by what my own access needs are, but I have tried to talk about some other issues I’ve noticed too.
At present, a shelf worth of library books which I took out at the beginning of the academic year, before my problems with fatigue began, is Bristol’s Graduate School of Arts and Humanities, on Woodland Road. As the year goes on, I have increasingly been spending my research hours elsewhere.
Why?: Because the Graduate School of Arts and Humanities building is impressively inaccessible.* There is neither a lift, nor a flat access study space. While I can reach the study rooms on other floors, I would rather avoid the exertion of unnecessary stair climbing, in order to conserve my energy for more unavoidable tasks and work. And it’s not just a question of climbing up once to get to the room and once to leave. The study rooms allocated to research students are on the top floor. The common room is on the ground floor. Every time I want to have a snack or a cup of tea, or take a break without potentially distracting my work mates, I need to descend two flights of stairs, then ascend again to get back to work. I also need to go to another floor to get to a toilet. This is despite there being a kitchen and toilet on the top floor. But these are “staff only”, and apparently they do get aggy if they find a student in the kitchen. So any energy saved by using that kitchen is potentially then lost via the stressful situation of either having to explain my condition to a randomer, or (and potentially also following an explanation) being told off like a school kid, just because I used a kitchen.**
On the subject of toilets, the one on the ground floor is designated as “disabled”. My ass. This toilet has one of the heaviest doors I have ever encountered – and it’s not one which has the option of pressing a button to open. The door can be pushed to go through it in both directions. Except sometimes it can’t. Last year, I found a pile of crates used for moving catering stuff left right in front of it. If you pushed the door to get out, you could just about fit a person through the gap. If you were using crutches or – heaven forbid – a wheelchair, then could you get out?
I told the staff about this, and they said they’d sort it out that day. They didn’t. The next time I was in, which I think was a couple of days later, those crates were still there. A friend and I moved them ourselves.
But hey, if you were stuck in the toilet because of these crates you could always pull the emergency cord, right?
Wrong. The emergency cord has been cut off at the top.
Of course, this is all assuming we’ve got into the building in the first place. Because, as I said earlier, there is no flat access. Scouting round the entrance, I can see where there is meant to be a ramp: it should go up half way on the other side of a short wall, then turn into the garden, and continue up to the entrance level from there. (That is, the main entrance, which is only open during office hours. The out of hours entrance is down some stairs, because clearly everyone who needs flat access is only active between nine and five.)
I can see _where there is meant to be_ a ramp. I’ve studied at Bristol for a year and a half now, and ever since I can remember that ramp has been blocked. The other side of the short wall, there are builders’ fences, with piles of junk inside them, blocking the entire width of the ramp.
Why don’t I just use another study space, you ask? Well, I do. I spend most of my research hours at home now. There were reasons why I liked to work in the Graduate School. I liked the sense of community in a building used by arts and humanities postgrads: it got me through my Masters dissertation, moreover making me friends in the process. The provision of kitchen space meant I could save money by bringing my own tea, soup, etc. (Indeed, this would still save me money and energy compared to other study spaces, where I’d have to find a nearby café to buy stuff from, or invest in a large and heavy collection of thermoses whereas with a kitchen I could use small, light takeaway boxes – saving energy again.) Also, all of the toilets in the Graduate School building are gender neutral (they are all single stall), which saves me the stress associated with odd looks in gendered toilets, or when seen hovering awkwardly outside the disabled loo in the library, waiting for it to be free.
In any case, why should I use another study space? The University of Bristol pride themselves on their provision of a building set aside for the postgrads of the Arts, Humanities, and Modern Languages faculties. They argue – and quite rightly – that the community fostered by this shared working space is invaluable to our research. As, indeed, it is to our social lives, as the work which makes up PhDs in these subjects is almost entirely solitary. Except that students such as myself are denied this.
The Graduate School’s website claims that the building’s interior “has been specifically designed and adapted to cater for postgraduate students’ needs”.*** As such, the extreme inaccessibility of the Graduate School of Arts and Humanities building tells me that my University does not think myself and other students with access needs are deserving members of the academic community. It implies that our thoughts and ideas are not worth sharing with other students. Indeed, it potentially implies that they think we lack the skills needed in order to pursue postgraduate study.
The university is wrong. We know it, our supervisors know it, and our friends who can access the Grad school know it. The situation at present is simply not good enough.
*This is entirely contra to the claims of the out of date website, which reads “The ground floor, with full disabled access, holds the main reception, a large teaching room, and a common room for postgraduate students to relax and chat.” -http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/gradschool/about/facilities/
**It’s perhaps also worth noticing that staff frequently use the student kitchen!