Breaking Promises: QUT falls behind on campus accessibility

QUT proudly boasts about having safe spaces dedicated to female students and queer students on both campuses, but still doesn’t have a disability room. For a university that lists equity and diversity as some of its highest priorities, accessibility for disabled students on campus is low.

Ethan Johnstone, who has been the QUT Guild Disability Officer since the end of 2023, said that the biggest problem students with disabilities face on campus is a lack of accessibility. Many buildings and floors are only accessible via a staircase or external uncovered walkways, making access to class and facilities a daily struggle. 

The topic of accessibility at QUT has been debated extensively by QUT Disability Collective and the QUT Guild in the last 12 months. Recently, there has been a lot of problems with the Kelvin Grove elevators from the bus station to the main campus, with three outages in the last year – one of which lasted for six months. One outage even left a small group of students stuck in the elevator for half an hour before a technician arrived.

The ambulatory bathrooms, which are designed to be accessible, are few and far between. These are placed in difficult-to-access hallways, have poles in front of them, or have chairs placed inside.

Students with disabilities often have varying levels of energy, which can be much lower than those of non-disabled students, and therefore, navigating campus and making their way around can be a lot more difficult. Johnstone said a disability room would give disabled students a safe place to rest, study, and socialise that is guaranteed to be accessible.

“The Queer Collective and the Women’s Collective both have a room on each campus for students to use to socialise, study, rest, and recharge. These spaces are the vital heart of student connection for each of these groups, and disabled students are once again missing out,” Johnstone said.

Johnstone has been working on receiving a solid commitment from QUT regarding the acquirement of a disability room and is constantly taking on feedback from students about what they want to see from the space. He still has doubts about plausibility of a room being acquired anytime soon and said that QUT’s recent response to the elevator outages on campus shows where the university’s priorities lie.

Michael Pendergast, who has been Disability Collective Convenor since March 2023 and was the collective’s secretary for a year before that, said the reason that there are no disability rooms yet is because of QUT’s lack of willpower.

“They don’t see a real benefit to it, quite frankly… I was hoping that we would get something by the end of the year, however, now with QUT dragging its feet, I think it’ll be a couple years away, unfortunately.”

Pendergast estimates that 10% of QUT students are living with a disability, which can include physical disabilities, neurodivergence, mental health conditions and chronic illnesses.

The Disability Collective, whose main role is to build and foster a positive community for QUT students with disabilities and to advocate for their rights, currently has around 100 members, though this is likely a small portion of the real number.

The number of disabled undergraduate students at QUT was around 3000 in 2020 (6% of the 50,000 students enrolled), while postgraduate disabled students had slightly lower numbers, According to QUTs ‘Disability Access to Australian Higher Education’ research brief, the number of students with disabilities who actually completed their degrees was much lower, at 4% of the entire student body. The dropout rate for non-disabled students at QUT is sitting around 27%, compared to 33% of disabled students.

By contrast, the University of Queensland has separate spaces for socialising, studying and resting, which Michael Pendergast says is the gold standard.

The UQ Union ran a survey on what students thought of their disability rooms, a study which was implemented to support other university disability collectives in their attempts of securing a room. The rooms were described as safe and quiet places to meet with like-minded people, and offered amenities like free snacks and drinks, board games, weighted blankets, adjustable lighting and clean and accessible bathrooms.

The survey revealed that 66% of students found the rooms extremely beneficial, and 75% said it was extremely important that disability rooms were a service offered at other universities. One anonymous student response included in the survey said “[The disability rooms] provide many supports which help ensure everyone is safe and cared for… it allows us to connect with them and reassure us that we are being heard, and cared for by people who understand our position.”

Grace Quinn Hennessy, a QUT law and biomedical student, believes the lack of disability room is due to a lack of awareness and is reflective of a wider society that is set up for non-disabled people. “I would personally benefit from having a space to socialise with other people who have disabilities, as I don’t often get that opportunity.”

She said one of her biggest problems with accessibility on the campus is shared spaces that are clearly not set up with neurodivergent people in mind. Bright lights and large groups of students can be very overstimulating for some, making it near impossible for them to study on campus.

Daniel Do, who is doing a Bachelor of IT and started an ADHD study buddies group with the Disability Collective, said that having a disability room at QUT would be a symbol of how much the university cares about students with disabilities, most of whom are still young and still navigating their way through the world with a disability.

“I think awareness is also really important, because there’s a lot of people with ADHD who have mental health problems, mental health disabilities, and physical disabilities who just don’t know that they can actually apply for support.”

A space dedicated to students with disabilities and their varied needs would solve a lot of accessibility problems for QUT. It has been proven that disability rooms are beneficial and effective in their purpose, and that disabled students greatly appreciate the awareness and support that they bring. QUT is in a position to make a positive change for students with disabilities, which is a predicated 10% of the cohort.

“Students at other universities who have these spaces benefit greatly from them, as they are able to recharge after classes in an environment that is accessible. Disabled students at QUT have very few choices for accessible study spaces or spaces to meet other students. A disability room would solve this problem,” Johnstone said.

Jacinta Rossetto
Jacinta Rossetto

Jacinta Rossetto is a writer, artist and editor studying Creative Writing at QUT. Her passion project is a little something called Dawn Street Zine, a zine that she writes, designs, produces and scouts content for. Her favourite genres to write in are gothic and literary fiction.

Articles: 24

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