helen-louise (baratron) wrote,

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Disability awareness at a UK university in Not Crap shocker!

I am simultaneously highly impressed and highly unimpressed. How so? Well, when I saw Philip on Friday for our "official" progress meeting, he told me about a seminar he was planning to go to on Wed 31st March. I looked at the list of speakers and decided I wanted to go too. So I fired off an email to the person in charge:
Dear Dr. [$surname],

I have just been told about the Southampton Chemical Biology Symposium on the 31st March. My supervisor, Dr Philip [$surname] from Birkbeck College London, and I, both plan to attend.

I'm sorry to add complications so close to the event, but I am disabled and have three requirements that I need your help with.

Firstly, I need to know what kind of seating is available in the lecture theatre. Is it a typical lecture theatre with fixed seats, or a room with moveable seats? If it is a room with moveable seats then I would like to request a chair with lumbar support. Otherwise if it is a lecture theatre with fixed seats I can bring a cushion for my back.

Secondly, is there a women's toilet that is within easy reach of the lecture theatre without needing to go up or down stairs? I don't need a specific "disabled" toilet as I am not a wheelchair user, just one that does not require the use of stairs. Lifts/elevators are fine, however I know that some university buildings require a departmental swipe card in order to access the lifts. If your building is like this then I might need to borrow someone to help me go up and down floors.

Thirdly, I would like permission to record the lectures using a small digital voice recorder. As all of your speakers are from UK universities, they are probably used to students recording lectures in this way (I have the standard voice recorder paid for by Disabled Students' Allowance), but I would prefer if they were informed in advance rather than me having to ask on the day. It is an audio recording only, for my own use and I will respect the speaker's intellectual copyright according to the SKILL Guidelines (http://www.skill.org.uk/page.aspx?c=181&p=292). I would be very grateful if you could ask on my behalf, perhaps by forwarding this email to them?

Thank you. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me, either by email or by phone (my mobile number is [redacted]).

Helen-Louise [$surname]
PhD student at Birkbeck.

By the time I'd finished writing that and hit send, it was 19:05 on Friday 19th March.

At 07:58 on Saturday 20th March (barely 13 hours later - and not a work day, either!), I received the following reply:
Hi Helen-Louise,

We are glad that you are coming down to Southampton for the seminar.

The seating in the room is fixed, so if you bring a cushion that may be best. If it ends up being too uncomfortable, come see me on the day and we can always get you a chair.

The women's toilet is on the same floor (turn right out of the lecture theater, go to the end of the corridor, then turn left).

I can certainly ask the speakers about you recording their lecture. I can't imagine it will be a problem, but they may be presenting unpublished data and people can get funny about that, so if any object, you can always talk over points that you may be interested in, over tea and at the wine reception afterwards.

When you come in on the day, the entrance to building 30 leads to a set of wide stairs that you will need to go up to get to the lecture room. There is another route that does not have any stairs. If enter via building 29 instead (just down the road from 30, also chemistry) and go through those doors and turn left, there will be a lift. Take it to level 2. Turn left out of the lift and LTR1 will be there.

Best wishes,


Am I impressed? Yes! Very much so! He answered all my questions extremely promptly, and spontaneously realised that my mobility restrictions meant it would be sensible to provide information about the alternative route to the lecture theatre - all without asking a single intrusive question.

That wasn't even the end of it. In a second email sent on Mon 22nd March at 11:58, he confirmed that two of the lecturers had given permission for me to record their lectures, and apologised that the third is currently hard to get hold of. That's a few hours into the first working day since receipt of my email. Incredibly fast work. 

All in all, I feel assured that I will be welcome at the event, and if I have any problems on the day I will be able to ask for help without being seen as an inconvenience because of my physical ability.

Now, shall we compare this to the lot who are organising that symposium in June, who still haven't managed to answer any of my questions. And perhaps I'll mention again that duty under the Disability Discrimination Act is anticipatory. Clearly, somebody (or several somebodies) at Southampton are much more aware of this than certain people within Birkbeck and/or UCL...

Update: I replied to say thank you for your awesomeness.
Dear Ali,

Thank you very much for your extremely prompt, comprehensive, and thoughtful reply to my email. I do appreciate your time in clarifying the issues I raised. I was particularly impressed when you realised that, due to my mobility restrictions, I would need information about the alternative route to the lecture theatre.

Thank you also for getting in contact with the lecturers for me. The talk I am most interested in with respect to my own work is that of Prof N, so I am pleased that he is happy for me to record it. Please let me know if you do hear from Prof. B before the day.

Your reply contrasts strongly with that of the organisers of the conference I am supposed to be going to in June. Despite asking similar questions in early February (indeed, a lot of my initial email to you was copied from that), I have received a reply that states only that they are "currently looking into" the points I raised. A slow response seems unnecessary because duty under the Disability Discrimination Act is _anticipatory_, meaning that organisers of public events are supposed to think about possible problems long before anyone disabled actually gets in contact. It makes me feel that I will be unwelcome at the conference. In contrast, your fast and friendly reply assures me that if I have any problems on the day, I will be able to ask for help without being seen as an inconvenience.

I look forward to meeting you next Wednesday. You'll recognise me because I'll be the only person at the meeting with a transparent blue plastic walking stick (that fluoresces under ultraviolet light!).

Tags: conferences, disability

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