I was asked by UCT’s student-run newspaper to write an opinion piece on campus accessibility. This is cool. I think I should expand its reach than just the university for various reasons so below is a copy of the article I sent the editor word-for-word.
I’m a Second-Year Humanities Student. I happen, also, to be in a wheelchair. In the ideal world, this wouldn’t make any difference for my education. UCT’s campus, however, is not easy on the accessibility front. That said, there are various groups of staff and students who fight to make the campus that little bit more manageable for the disabled students but they face considerable challenges on various levels. The effort that groups like UCT’s Traffic Department and the Disability Service put in, although considerable, does not negate the fact that UCT is still very inaccessible for disabled students.
If I had to put the accessibility issues I’ve experienced into a single word, it would have to be ‘lifts.’ I’ve lost count how many times the lifts I need are broken. I’ve also been stuck in two different lifts on Upper Campus. I think it goes without saying that a broken lift can scupper my entire plans for the day. Recently, there was one day where all but one of the Humanities lifts on the South Side broke and the one that remained was, perhaps, the one I could have afforded to lose. Yes, the Disability Service report broken lifts promptly and inform the affected students timeously but that does not change the fact that previously-accessible, planned-for, short routes have been rendered all but useless.
The terrain of the campus is intrinsically hard for wheelchair-accessibility, so it is critical that lifts work and accessibility routes are never blocked off by special events. One of the routes that I take most often cuts through Molly Blackburn; I’ve faced situations where organisers had closed it off, without realising that it is a vital route for wheelchair-using students to get to the library, the cafeteria, the ICTS office and others. Yes, there is route that bypasses Molly Blackburn but it involves doubling, if not tripling, the travel-time and since I’m in a manual chair, I’m often out-of-breath and so I arrive at class in no condition to benefit from it. Considering the fees, I’d like the opportunity to attend the classes I’m paying for.
With all the access problems I face, it’s often easy to forget the services that are in place. For example, since all save two Jammies are not wheelchair-accessible, the Disability Service provides a bus service that delivers you to and from campus. The Disability Service, in general, will bend over backwards to make one’s academic life more accessible, and they do a lot to organise suitable venues and accommodations. I’ve also found the Traffic Department beyond helpful. One of my pet-hates is people illegally parking in Disabled Bays on campus; if I find one, I phone the Traffic Department and within ten minutes they’re on site and taking the problem seriously.
So there certainly are people at UICT who try hard on behalf of the disabled, but there’s still a long way to go before things are easy for us. One thing that would help is greater communication: when one arm of the UCT workforce plans to block something off, they need to remember that not everyone can just step aside: perhaps it could be agreed that all such plans must be discussed with the Disability Service.
And I’ll say that word again: lifts!