University College London is a fairly historic university: the majority of its buildings were constructed during the nineteenth century when step-free access was sadly not high on the agenda. Steps and spiralling staircases characterise the built environment, meaning many areas of campus are completely inaccessible for wheelchair users, and plenty more are very tricky to access. This includes areas that would be fundamental for some people’s areas of study, including the Law library (pictured).
Last Thursday, the Mapping for Change team joined forces with University College London’s Disabled Students society for a day of accessibility challenges! Our purpose: getting university staff and students to Try It! and experience what it’s like to navigate campus on two wheels.
Between 11am and 3pm, a small group of us braved the chilly temperatures in UCL’s main quad, and challenged those passing to learn about accessibility. A range of challenges were on offer, meaning participants could choose an activity to suit the amount of time they had available. Some signed up for a ‘Day in the Life’ – and set themselves the task of carrying out their entire day as a wheelchair user. Others opted for shorter challenges, including Mapping for Change’s persona challenge.
For this, we developed a series of personas – all were based on students or staff who had basic tasks to carry out around campus, such as going to the library, using a computer room, or meeting their friends for coffee. Participants were asked to choose a persona, and then map the journey they would take (as themselves, ie. on foot) to that destination onto a campus map. Then came the real challenge: to try and complete that route, but in a wheelchair!
For many participants, this was the first time they’d used a wheelchair. Many giggles were had as people tried to manoeuvre, and quickly realised it was a lot more difficult than they had realised! As they set off, we asked them to mark any barriers to accessibility they encountered onto the map.
Once they had successfully completed the route, or realised it was impossible, participants returned to us in the main quad to chat about their experiences. The majority returned quite a while later, arms aching and considerably sweatier than when they had departed. Very few were able to complete the journeys, and where they could, the routes were considerably longer than they had imagined.
Generally, people were shocked by just how inaccessible the campus environment was for wheelchair users.“We need more help for those who are in wheelchairs! Signposting and accessibility” (Clara, UCL undergraduate student). Many reported a widespread lack of signs as the major barrier, meaning that even where accessible routes were available, there was no way of knowing where they were!
Some participants suggested colour-coded lines could be added to floor surfaces, to help guide wheelchair users to selected destinations. “[UCL needs] More signposting to show accessible routes so people don’t waste their time going through a pointless route! You could spend all day trying to get somewhere!” (Miranda, UCL Staff)
People were also struck by the huge time difference between their walking route to a destination, and the journey that wheelchair users were required to make to reach the same location. Often, this route required exiting the campus altogether and passing along busy main roads, and congested pavements. These findings and general feedback from the activity will be discussed with University College London’s estates team, and hopefully lead to significant accessibility improvements being made around campus.
Overall, Mapping for Change and UCL Disabled Students raised lots of awareness about accessibility on campus, and got people thinking about what it’s like to navigate on two wheels. Experiencing accessibility first hand turned out to be quite an eye-opener!