Monday, 22 October 2018

Pushing the Boundaries: Making the Exclusive Inclusive

Written by Amarpreet Kaur

Having completed my BA at a very modern and inclusive institution, moving to Cambridge was an eye-opening experience. I moved to Cambridge at a time when I was not worried if I would be able to walk the next day, when being wheelchair-dependent was not an imminent possibility. However, living with a degenerative condition and having passed through that very fog just before my arrival in Cambridge mean that accessibility and inclusivity are never far from my thoughts in this city.

For those with mobility considerations, whether chronic or temporary, environmental structures can make the world of difference. Such structures often go unappreciated and are taken for granted until they cease to function / exist. Before anticipating my move to Cambridge, I certainly never truly realised how fortunate I had been in my previous academic environment. In this post, I write to critically challenge whether physical access structures to academic institutions are actually practical and inclusive, and to increase discussion on boundaries that should be pushed so that the exclusivity of higher education (HE) can become more inclusive.

Figure 1. A Department Elevator. This
photograph shows a very narrow entrance
doorway to an elevator. The elevator
is next to a staircase with an ornate
carved wooden banister.
To illustrate my argument, I am going to start backwards, i.e. from the inside of institutional buildings. Figure 1 is of an elevator - possibly one of the most common environmental adjustments many universities have implemented in their respective buildings. The pictured elevator has purposefully been chosen as an example because of the practicalities that accompany its very presence. Whilst I do not know for certain the original purpose for the installation of this particular elevator, I am going to assume it was in response to policy / legislation surrounding accessibility1.

Figure 2. Inside a Department Elevator.
This photograph shows the inside of the
elevator depicted in Figure 1. The interior
of the elevator is very small.
The featured elevator, however, is impractical. An adult wheelchair would struggle to fit inside (see Figure 2), and self-propelled wheelchairs would definitely not fit. Yet, fitting inside the elevator is a secondary issue - first and foremost, individuals with mobility considerations would have to find a way to actually reach the elevator. To reach the featured elevators for example, an individual would have to navigate the steps in Figure 3; there is no alternate entrance and a ramp cannot be fixed to the steps due to the steepness and available space in front of them.

Figure 3. Stairs to Departmental
Building. This photograph shows
3 steep stone steps heading
up to wooden double doors.
Whilst I recognise that most institutions have more practical elevators, many have less accessible entrances. At a growing number of institutions, revolving doors, as illustrated in Figure 4, are being installed for energy efficiency measures, to prevent draughts. Such doors are not inclusive of individuals with mobility considerations. Having to find and use an alternate entrance is isolating and could even be exclusionary if one does not exist.

As Hannah Gibson so aptly wrote, access to spaces sends a message that ‘certain bodies are more welcome than others … [and] that they are inferior to [more] able-bodied individuals’. With well-known governmental initiatives such as Widening Participation (WP)2, access boundaries should not need to be pushed to make HE more inclusive. In contemporary society, inclusive access should be the norm.

Figure 4. A University's revolving
doors. This photograph shows a
revolving door split into 4 narrow
sections at the entrance
to a building.
I have never self-identified as ‘dis’abled, mostly because I have never previously been made to feel so. However, having moved to Cambridge, I now recognise that modern structures such as accessible elevators, automatic/light doors, and relatively flat pathways, are luxuries. Needless to say, considering basic access is yet to be conquered, accessible teaching/meeting rooms and mobility-friendly accommodation are even more rare.

I cannot escape the feeling that had I needed to rely more robustly on others, or been unable to come and go as I pleased without an entourage or timed assistance, I may have identified and felt differently. In this context, I am fortunate that my first experiences of HE were not made to be exclusive, and as a result I was enabled to reach my full potential. Now, in the words of Prof. Sara Ahmed (2006: 62), I am forced to acknowledge that ‘[w]hen bodies take up spaces they are not intended to inhabit, something other than the reproduction of the facts of the matter happens’; entrances inadvertently promote segregation, inaccessible elevators deny individuals with mobility considerations access, and thus boundaries are reinstated.

References:

Ahmed S, (2006). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press. USA.

Armstrong C, (2008). What you need to know about widening participation. [online] Available from: http://www.jobs.ac.uk/careers-advice/working-in-higher-education/1146/what-you-need-to-know-about-widening-participation Accessed: 27th August 2018.

Footnotes:

1. see the Equality Act 2010.

2. The aim of WP is to enable and encourage access to HE by offering opportunities to under-represented groups within the general population. Under-represented groups traditionally include which includes people with disabilities (Armstrong, 2008).

About the Author

Portrait photograph of Amarpreet
smiling into the camera with a
cityscape sunset in the background.
Amarpreet Kaur (@lioness1992) is a PhD Student at the University of Cambridge in the Department of Sociology. Amarpreet's research focuses on human germline genome editing in relation to disease and disability.

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