A recently formed campaign group aiming to highlight the access issues faced by disabled people has called on the University to support schemes that make its premises more accessible.
The St Andrews Access Group (SAAG), which is affiliated to Disabilities Fife, was set up last year by PhD student Haian Dukhan and held its first meeting last week at the Old Course hotel.
Mr Dukhan spoke to The Saint, outlining the issues he faces as a wheelchair user in accessing certain University buildings: “Many of them are old and the University says that they are listed. In general, the University has made good progress in making many of their buildings accessible – they have done good work in the Students’ Union [and] the new cafe is wheelchair friendly.
“On the other hand I remember once going to the sports centre. I wanted to go and watch my friend play in a game, and we needed to go up a level, but we were told that there is no lift. What am I supposed to do if I want to play a sport which is based on the second floor?”
Mr Dukhan also added that some University accommodation has access issues: “My University accommodation is wheelchair accessible, but if I want to visit my friends who live in other buildings like Gannochy House, there are problems.” He went on to note that it is not just older buildings which are troublesome: “The Arts building (which was only completed in 2006) only has one lift. They had a problem with the lift, and it took them more than a month to fix it. All the lectures and seminars had to be moved to other buildings because of me.
“You may read about an event a few hours in advance, and you realise it’s not in an accessible building. If you e-mail the University, they will say that you should have given them notice – you need to prepare for attending events well beforehand, it’s quite challenging.”
The access group was addressed by Sukhi Bains, the University’s equality and diversity officer, who explained that the University has created a webpage called ‘Reporting accessibility difficulties across Fife’. Some of the issues since reported by disabled staff and students, as well as by others present at the meeting, include: difficulties travelling along narrow pavements on the main St Andrews streets owing to obstructive shop advertising hoardings; challenges faced when moving between buildings – for example, the lack of a safe crossing point from John Burnet Hall to the North Haugh; timetables at the bus station being positioned too high up for disabled people to view; and food outlets placing tables and chairs on the pavements, forcing disabled people to travel on uncomfortable cobbles.
Explaining the University’s response, Mr Bains noted that a company was commissioned to take pictures of all University buildings, and subsequently provided an in-depth analysis of improvements needed. Furthermore, when the University constructs or refurbishes buildings, it engages with disabled students via the disability advisors in Student Services. Finally, equality training is provided to all staff and managers to foster greater awareness.
He conceded, though, that “we do have a lot of issues that we need to address… Where’s the pot of money that’s going to make this difference? That’s what we are trying to negotiate at the moment, but we should have a concrete long term plan.”
Mr Bains said that access is an issue many staff identify with: “There are some really good professors and really great people working in the Principal’s Office who want to help make the environment better – we do have a lot of passion there.”
Roderick Campbell, the SNP MSP for North East Fife, also spoke about various facets of equalities legislation. He pointed out the existence of a website (www.euansguide.com) where disabled people can share reviews of the access arrangements for any venues they encounter.
Fife Council’s access officer, Robert Ferguson, gave a speech in which he acknowledged the numerous calls to lower kerbs so that disabled people can travel around more easily. However, he said that the Council has not yet got a budget for carrying out access improvements specifically, so any funding would have to come from other departmental budgets. Mr Ferguson said that since he took up the role, the number of buildings certified as disabled friendly has dropped sharply due to him putting in place far stricter criteria.
Looking to the future, Mr Dukhan said: “It seems that the University is working well in this area, but it’s not one of its priorities. If they want to attract more students with disabilities, they need to work more on accessibility issues.”