• Tue. Jul 23rd, 2024

“Nothing short of incompetent” – Investigation by The Student finds dangerously unsafe toilets, inaccurate information plague university’s accessibility efforts

ByNews Contributors

Nov 21, 2022
An arrangement of unsafe or incorrectly recorded accessibility implements at the University of Edinburgh.

An investigation by The Student has found that the University of Edinburgh’s building accessibility information and provision suffers from outdated information and poor maintenance.

Reporters found that dozens of accessible toilet emergency alarms had been tucked behind or wrapped around grab rails, putting the lives of mobility impared people at risk.

Further, over one-third of all buildings surveyed had inaccurate accessibility information published in online “access guides” by the university’s accessibility information consultant, AccessAble.

Five large teaching buildings were found to have no accessibility information published online at all.

Disabled Students’ Officer Lucy Caswell told The Student that the university’s behaviour around accessibility “is nothing short of incompetent.”

Caswell also told The Student that she has been campaigning to the university for them to keep accessibility information “accurate, coherent [and] up to date” since September, to no avail.

“I am not surprised by their lack of consideration of disabled students and the information that is required for disabled students to have a normal university experience.”

To carry out the research, reporters for The Student visited nearly two dozen major teaching and students’ union buildings at the university to assess their accessibility.

Where the university had published information about accessibility resources online, reporters compared that data to what was actually in the building.

In situations where this information was not available, reporters attempted to construct their own lists of accessibility resources inside the building.

Accessible toilets dangerous to life

An accessible toilet in the Chrystal Macmillan building which was not fit for purpose.

Accessible toilets across the university have emergency alarms, virtually always red pull cords, to allow persons with impaired mobility to notify building staff if they need help.

These cords need to hang unobstructed and free, and reach the floor, so that a person unable to leave the ground can successfully pull the cord and sound the alarm.

However, in dozens of instances, The Student found that these cords were slung behind grab rails, not long enough to reach the ground, or both.

In a life-threatening situation, the lack of ability to reach an emergency alarm could lead to somebody losing their life.

In several cases, reporters found emergency cords wrapped around movable arms used by some mobility impaired persons to transfer from their wheelchair to the toilet seat.

For persons without the range-of-motion or dexterity to remove the cord from the arm, the toilet would be unusable in that state.

Emergency cords are often placed behind grab rails by cleaning staff, who wish to avoid setting off the alarm while cleaning the stall.

Forgetfulness, or a lack of knowledge about why the cords are supposed to hang freely, lead to them not being returned to their correct state.

In other cases, people who don’t know better attempt to tie the cord to itself or wrap it around a grab rail, not understanding that it is intended to touch the floor.

In some of the university’s toilets, information cards provided by Scottish accessibility information charity Euan’s Guide have been affixed to the red cords.

The cards tell cleaning staff and users of the restroom that the cord is supposed to hang unobstructed down to the floor.

However, in several instances, The Student saw red cords with the information cards either tied to grab rails or hanging a substantial distance off the floor.

In one Appleton Tower accessible toilet, an information card was seen laying on the floor below an emergency cord that had been tied out of reach of the ground.

Online information inaccurate

AccessAble, the university’s building accessibility information consultant, maintains online access guides for major university buildings on its website.

The Student found a significant number of inaccuracies in these access guides, including the omission of some accessible toilets.

In Appleton Tower, a reporter found three accessible toilets which were not listed in the building’s access guide.

Additionally, reporters found that information on whether staff help was needed to use accessible lifts and building entrances was inaccurate.

One reporter found that the main lift in Teviot Row House had signs indicating that only disabled people and staff moving goods could use it on some floors.

However, other floors had no such signage, implying that anybody could use it.

At time of press, the AccessAble guide for Teviot Row House says that the lift is for public use.

In the Old Medical School, a reporter found that two lifts had signs on them saying that certain members of staff had to be contacted for the lift to be operated.

This is despite the fact that the AccessAble guide for the building says that all lifts are open for public use and do not need staff help to operate.

Further, several major teaching buildings do not have access guides published online.

At time of press, the Nucleus Building, the Dugald Stewart Building, and the Chrystal Macmillan Building (CMB) do not have online access guides.

One reporter walked through the publicly accessible parts of the CMB to evaluate the accessibility resources available inside.

They found that seven of fifteen accessible toilets could not safely be used due to emergency alarm cords being placed behind grab rails.

One of those seven accessible toilets also had the emergency alarm cord placed behind the hot and cold water pipes to the sink.

A university spokesperson told The Student that newly built structures would be added to the access guide during the next audit by AccessAble.

However, this does not explain the lack of access guides for the Chrystal Macmillan and Dugald Stewart buildings, both of which have existed for over a decade.

One reporter was able to find copies of old access guides from 2021 for both buildings on an internet archival website.

The list of accessibility resources in the Chrystal Macmillan Building matched a list assembled by the reporter as they explored the building.

Meanwhile, the list for the Dugald Stewart Building did not match the reporter’s findings, omitting a significant number of accessible toilets.

AccessAble said that as changes are made to the university’s campus regarding accessibility, the Estates team at the university is supposed to notify the firm.

A representative for the firm said that “this process hasn’t been as effective as it should be”, and that they would look to improve their processes for updating data at the university.

The representative also signposted the “Something Changed” button located in each Access Guide, which lets users suggest updates when physical conditions do not match the guide.

A representative of the firm also shared with The Student that they have worked with the university since 2017, and are part way through a two year contract.

Information poorly presented

In researching this story, reporters for The Student found that building accessibility information was presented poorly, both online and in person.

On their website, the university says that people can interact with its AccessAble guides through an Android and iOS app called “AccessAble – UoE”.

However, when a staff member at The Student tried to find the app on an Android device, their searches turned up no results.

Apple’s App Store had the app, however the information on it was several years out of date, old enough that 40 George Square was still called the David Hume Tower.

Several other universities which partner with AccessAble also have individual smartphone apps for their campuses.

The Student compared the University of Edinburgh app with the apps for Glasgow Caledonian University and Queen’s University Belfast.

Both universities’ apps were available on Android, and both the iOS and Android apps had the same information as was shown on their respective accessibility guides.

At left: Queen’s University Belfast app. At right: University of Edinburgh app.

A representative of AccessAble told The Student that the issues around the “AccessAble – UoE” app were isolated, and would be investigated.

The representative also said that the firm was switching away from providing location-specific apps in favour of directing people towards one unified AccessAble application.

At time of press, three days have passed since The Student received the comment; there is still no University of Edinburgh Android app.

The university also provides access to its accessibility guides through its online interactive map, available on https://www.ed.ac.uk/maps/maps.

But, many links on the interactive map which say they lead to accessibility guides instead lead to a “page not found” screen.

Some buildings could be found by searching for them manually on the AccessAble website, however many others had no accessibility information online that The Student could locate.

Within some buildings, signage indicating the locations of accessible toilets was lacking.

In Appleton Tower, the signage for the basement level accessible toilet was limited to a silver badge with a wheelchair on it affixed to the door.

The badge was out of line with the visual styling of the rest of the building, and almost no signage in the rest of the building pointed to the location of that toilet.

In the Chrystal Macmillan Building, even though every floor had at least one accessible toilet, the building directory by the main entrance only indicated that they existed on the lower floors.

A spokesperson for the University of Edinburgh said to The Student:

“The University promotes equality and diversity across all that we do, seeking to remove structural barriers, eliminate discrimination, and create an inclusive culture and an accessible environment for all.

“Since 2016, the University’s Estates Department have worked closely with AccessAble to create access guides for teaching spaces and buildings across our campuses.

“As new buildings are completed, new access guides are commissioned and existing access guides are frequently reviewed and updated.”

The spokesperson said that the Estates Department had been made aware of The Student’s findings, and that AccessAble was responsible for maintaining the access guides.

They also said that AccessAble would be performing their annual audit of the campus on two dates at the end of November.

This story ran in print on Tuesday 15 November 2022. Since then, The Student has received a response from AccessAble. We have added information from this response to the above article.

Sarah Challen Flynn, Katie Coble, Ione Gildroy, Eilidh Johnson, Tom Manning, Alexa Sambrook, Aymaan Sheikh, and Joe Sullivan contributed to this piece.