There are concerns that infrastructures for disabled students might clash with the aesthetic of older colleges, such as Corpus ChristiLOUIS ASHWORTH

A Varsity investigation has uncovered information on the experiences of disabled students at the University of Cambridge.

Varsity surveyed disabled students and J/MCR committee members, receiving 115 responses. Responses were recorded from all 31 Cambridge colleges. Data was also collated from interviews, the Disability Resource Centre’s [DRC’s] college accessibility guide, and the UCS and DRC annual reports.

Varsity has found that:

  • Freedoms, such as being able to wash your clothes or meet your friends in the bar for a drink, are being denied to students in wheelchairs
  • Disabled students feel that their performance in examinations is impacted by insufficient and inappropriate exam allowances
  • J/MCR committee members are receiving limited training on how to support students
  • A lack of accessible accommodation is forcing disabled students to live in rooms not suitably adapted to their needs
  • Students report college staff making ableist comments. One supervisor reportedly suggested a student’s memory was so bad that they must have had a stroke
  • Students raise concerns about insufficient counselling at the University and college level
  • Postgraduates receive less disability support than undergraduates. All JCRs have a Disabled Students’ Officer compared to only 3 MCRs
  • Over half of disabled students report not attending events due to their disability
  • Disabled students are socially isolated by the location of accessible rooms and room ballot systems
  • 70% of J/MCR committee members knowledgeable of proposals agreed that their college was prioritising disabled access in future developments.

Findings and recommendations are published in full in the Varsity Disabled Access Report, which can be found online here.

Freedoms are being denied to students in wheelchairs

Almost half of colleges do not provide wheelchair access to all college facilities, according to college data. At 5 colleges, there is no wheelchair accessible laundry.

One respondent wrote, ‘I cannot access many communal spaces, such as the bar. The library is difficult to navigate due to heavy doors. I do not have access to proper laundry facilities as they are not wheelchair accessible’.

Varsity has uncovered that actual wheelchair accessibility is even worse than the accessibility advertised on college websites.

When students were asked to discount highly inconvenient, frequently broken or obscured access routes, less than three-quarters of key facilities were reported to be wheelchair accessible. This gap was seemingly not driven by the college distribution of respondents. 

Rebecca Heath

Accessibility is complicated by obscured and highly inconvenient access routes. At Corpus Christi, the one wheelchair accessible entrance (Golden Gate) is ‘usually’ blocked by vehicles inside the college. Students at Peterhouse and St John’s report that when staff lock certain doors, wheelchair accessibility is reduced. At St Catharine’s, to reach the MCR wheelchair users must take a ‘convoluted route’ through the car park.

Wheelchair accessibility can also ignore heavy non-automatic doors that are difficult to open in a wheelchair.

In response to these findings, a St Catharine’s College spokesperson said that the college would ‘welcome the opportunity to discuss access to the MCR with our postgraduates, including other options for its location’.

Peterhouse is hoping to have adapted the library ramp and installed automatic library doors to overcome night-time accessibly problems before Michaelmas 2021.

Disabled students feel that their performance in examinations is impacted by insufficient and inappropriate exam allowance

Varsity has found that students report college staff dismissing examination concerns.

Sidsel Størmer, a second-year student at Newnham, asked to do oral examinations due to a visual impairment. The University denied her request and forced her instead to record her essays on a tape recorder. Even after informing the college that this format was not working, the exam structure was not changed. A DRC advisor argued that this was a ‘trial year’ and ‘did not really matter’ – despite all results being recorded on a student’s transcript. Sidsel writes, ‘I felt like my concerns weren’t listened to or taken seriously’ by her tutor at the time. Sidsel ended up under-performing in the examinations due to the long time required to record essays. The college has since addressed her examination concerns but has not apologised or compensated her for what happened.

A DRC spokesperson replied by encouraging students with exam problems to raise it with their college.

Slow responses to exam allowance requests leave students with insufficient time to prepare for assessment. One respondent wrote, ‘I asked for help and didn’t get any extra help academically until two days before the exam – and even then, it was two hours which was not enough’.

Another college forgot that a disabled student had an exam and had not organised an invigilator.

J/MCR committee members are receiving limited training

Varsity has found that 70% of J/MCR respondents disagree that they have received adequate training on student support. 

Rebecca Heath

Respondents said that they had to proactively seek out training opportunities rather than training being readily provided. One respondent wrote, ‘I had to independently enquire to the DRC about more training and was pointed to a SUAS intro to mental health session’.

Respondents noted that a lot of the existing schemes focused on mental health problems instead of general disability support.

The CUSU Disable Students’ Officer has provided disability training for committee members in the past. With the resignation of the former DSO in March, there has been a gap in training provision. Existing training also failed to coincide with student elections.

A CUSU spokesperson said that the new SU will introduce a permanent member of staff to train J/MCR members.

The incoming Disabled Students’ Officer, Rensa Gaunt, is looking into offering more accessible online training alongside in-person training. Rensa comments, ‘I’ll be aiming to run them multiple times per term to suit demand and also have online recorded training as an option that is possibly more accessible’.

A lack of accessible accommodation is forcing disabled students to live in rooms not suitably adapted to their needs

One student reported that they had to live in a room which was not suitably adapted to their needs for a whole year, because there was not an available wheelchair-accessible room at their college.

The number of fully wheelchair accessible rooms varies across colleges from 1 (at Corpus Christi and Robinson) to 10 (at Homerton). Meanwhile, the number of students per fully wheelchair accessible room ranges from 75 students per room at Trinity Hall to 664 students per room at Robinson.

Rebecca Heath

Limited numbers of accessible rooms present a major problem when multiple disabled students with similar needs apply to the same college.

Proposed building projects at St Catharine’s will create a further four fully wheelchair accessible rooms, subject to planning permission.

Varsity Disabled Access Report


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To read more about the findings of the Varsity investigation, you can access the Varsity Disabled Access Report here.

Any report queries should be directed to investigations@varsity.co.uk.

If you have any queries regarding disabled access, you can email the Disability Resource Centre. You can also contact the Disabled Students’ Campaign on Facebook or by emailing the chair or incoming DSO.

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