My sight has been gradually deteriorating since I was a child. In 2006 I was registered as a blind person due to degeneration of both optic nerves (Optic Atrophy), which has severely affected my central vision. I now have very little ability to recognise people by sight unless I know them well and they are in an area that I expect to see them. In 2006 I contacted HR to register my sight loss with The University. As part of the process I was told about the Staff Disability Group, it was suggested that I contact them. I must admit I had not heard of the group before. I went along to the meetings and I found the topics being discussed were very interesting. The group was chaired by David Harrison who was looking for someone to take on the role of Chair. I felt that I had experience in a number of areas of disability. I was periodically deaf as a child, fortunately surgery saved my hearing, members of my family lived with various disabilities including sight loss, hearing loss, Autism and wheelchair users. I volunteered to Chair the group.
I very quickly realised that there seemed to be quite an uphill struggle in getting areas of the University to understand difficulties faced by disabled staff and students on campus. Quite often it is the fact that people can’t always see things from a different point of view. A small flight of steps is not a problem if you can walk down them and have never known any different. A wheelchair user will have a completely different view. Having broken my foot a couple of years ago and having to manage with crutches for a few weeks which was completely alien to me made me realise how exhausting it was just to move from one side of a large room to the other. To tackle a flight of stairs was out of the question. It made me realise how long the Aston Web corridor must be for someone entering from the Franklin-building end and having to walk with crutches to the reception by the Great Hall, as this was the only accessible entrance for many years.
I have worked for the University for twenty-three years and like most people only probably know a handful of buildings well enough to navigate without signage. I find generally that signs are too small and too high to read. Putting the door number on the doorframe above the door is useless to someone with a visual impairment. When I go to meetings, I quite often need to ask for directions to rooms if I have not been to the room before. My disability is completely hidden unless I pick up something to read you would not know I had any sight loss. So when I ask someone for directions to a particular room, they quite often say “it is just down the corridor” I then ask “Is it on the left or right? How many doors down is it?” I get some quite odd looks.
It is important that everyone becomes more aware of the impact of disability and that it is ok to discuss issues people are having on campus. If we can improve things for the staff this will also improve the experience for our students. Quite often both staff and students are having problems with the same issues.
We have found that the best approach to educate people about the impact of disability is by way of the SDG meetings where people from many other areas of the University get to see and hear first hand the issues that group members are having. Usually departments of the University such as Estates management, HAS and Security will have been invited to a meeting to try and address a particular area of concern for group members. It makes a big difference seeing issues at first hand rather than in a written document.
It is important the group maintains its primary function, to represent members of staff who have a disability and are finding areas of the University may be cause difficulties for them. Mobility difficulties around campus and within buildings may make it more difficult for us to be able to deliver the services that we are required too. My view is improve the facilities and the ability to deliver the service will improve.
The group has been invited to consult on a number of projects on campus to give an opinion of issues that may arise for anyone with a disability wishing to use the facilities. We have been involved in projects such as The Bramall Music Building, Library, the Sports Centre and most recently the car parking arrangements for disabled staff, students and visitors to the University. Where we made the case to adopt the Blue Badge Scheme in full, to operate the same way as local authorities around the country to save confusing staff, students and visitors to the campus.
One of the processes that came from a great deal of consultation with the group was PEEPS. Personal Emergency Egress Plan is an agreement between a person with a disability and the building management (The University) that comes into effect during emergency evacuations of buildings. It is so important that both parties know what to do in the event that evacuation becomes necessary.
The SDG group meets once a term and more often if the need arises. The SDG group membership is quite extensive and we have members from a good cross section of the University. Most of the good work that has been achieved has been by mutual understanding and cooperation from areas Such as HAS and Estates Management. I would like to thank everyone involved for all the help and support to date and for the future.
David Cottam, IT Manager Government and Society and School of Social Policy