“How can we fight for equality and inclusion in a place where we can’t even enter the front door?”
One student suffered an asthma attack as a result of paint fumes and a wheelchair user was trapped in a lift for over half an hour, as building work continues to cause disruption to accessibility in the Union.
A number of students have come forward to The Gryphon to talk of their negative experiences, with one student stating she feels she is “putting her health at risk” every time she enters the building.
Accessibility is one of the main priorities of the Union Upgrade, with much of the re-design focusing on including step-free access.
However, the building work itself has caused major issues for many students, with the layout of the building changing on a regular basis as new venues are opened and others are cordoned off, and this constant alteration has produced regular noise disruption.
Steps have been taken to improve communication, including the introduction of a twitter hashtag (#accessibleluu) to inform students of daily changes, but problems persist.
Inga Reichelt, President of the Disability Action Society, had a particularly traumatic experience when she was trapped in a lift for nearly half an hour after builders switched off the power without checking whether the left was occupied. When she was eventually rescued, builders had to place cardboard over recently laid wet concrete for her wheelchair to move across.
Charlotte Duckett, an English and Music student and Communications Officer for the Disability Action Society, told us: “Only yesterday, unannounced via the #accessibleLUU, they were painting the foyer, the fumes of which gave me an asthma attack and prevented me from attending a society event. I should not be expected to put my health at risk every time I enter the union.”
In response to the claims, a Leeds University Union spokesperson said: “We are very sorry for the disruption caused by the building work. We took the difficult decision to keep the Union and our student services open during the Upgrade and this has created some challenges. The Upgrade is a huge piece of redevelopment so mess, noise and general disruption do unfortunately come with it.
“Before building works began we did consult with students on accessibility and we have continue to work closely with the Student Exec and the larger student body to minimise disruption, and to update them on progress and any likely impacts on access using both #accessibleluu and through our website and blog.”
Despite this, Charlotte still feels like progress has yet to be made: “At the moment, it feels like the only people who care about access in the Union are disabled students. This is a huge problem. How can we fight for equality and inclusion in a place where we can’t even enter the front door?
“I still believe in the formal procedures of change, but when I have been ignored like this and when I am physically unable to enter the LUU in order to fight back, I feel that more drastic measures need to be taken”
Other students have had similar issues with poor accessibility, such as final year Nutrition student Emma Steer, who has long been struggling to access the Union from the South side of the building. She said: “The access route was frequently blocked by vehicles and builders’ equipment. Doors were left shut that were too narrow for most people to pass through comfortably, and on one occasion, the lift was blocked by a heavy door and full wheelie bin.”
Visually impaired students are also struggling with the ongoing disruption, as Charlotte says: “I’ve had visually impaired students refuse to attend Union events because every other day there’s a new white wall being put up or an object being moved in the foyer, and for someone who is partially sighted, they fear falling over something or walking into a wall. This is unacceptable.”
Steps towards better accessibility in the building are being made, with the installation of a new ramp providing step-free access down to Old Bar, and a lift which can transport students straight from the Riley Smith balcony to Old Bar.
LUU have stated: “Unfortunately the nature of the project means many disruptions are unpredictable. We are completely committed to inclusivity and continue to work on accessibility as a priority with projects such as the Accessibility Fund providing financial support to clubs and societies to make their events and activities more inclusive.
However, it’s the responsibility of all students, as well as LUU staff to work towards making LUU a more accessible environment for everyone. Students can help by reporting issues to staff members and on Twitter using #accessibleluu, making sure access routes are free of obstructions and working alongside LUU staff to ensure society events are as accessible as possible.