My initial observations of accessibility in Oxford

I had applied to Oxford just to have a crack at it, and truthfully was not expecting to get in. Sure, I had done a lot through academics, equestrian and disability advocacy, but so would have everyone else with their relevant interests.

I found out that I had been accepted to Oxford to study an MPhil in Politics (Comparative Government) towards the end of March. Funnily enough a few days after I got accepted, I saw an article in The Economist titled “Oxford University’s other diversity crisis – good luck trying to become a professor if you don’t have family money”. Oxford has a reputation for not being the most diverse of institutions, and I did wonder how I would get on as a disabled student who is profoundly deaf and wears a cochlear implant.

Fundamentally, Oxford University still has a long way to go in terms of accessibility for disabled individuals. One of the primary challenges lies in the university’s bureaucratic structure, as an older institution. Consequently, Oxford tends to take a more reactive approach to accessibility needs rather than proactively addressing them. As a post-graduate student, finding suitable accommodation is a nightmare, and I was initially informed that no rooms were available.

Despite my cochlear implant, my hearing does not function in the same way as others, making socializing more tiring and causing me to miss parts of conversations. I knew that residing close to other students would be crucial to being able integrate into the Oxford social fabric because as a deaf person I will never be able to join in social situations as easily as my hearing peers. I reached out to my college explaining my circumstances, and fortunately, they were able to accommodate me. I appreciate their assistance, particularly considering the unfortunate stories I have heard about people falling victim to scams while searching for accommodation. However, it is worth mentioning that I did disclose my disability on my application form, which could have prompted a more proactive approach by the university.

…the larger issue lies with how we get Oxford as an institution to take a more proactive approach with disability.

Oxford’s status as an older institution means there is a lack of accessibility in their physical spaces. Most of the buildings are grade-listed and have historical significance, which usually means numerous steps and cobblestones. Personally, I have experienced difficulties in these older buildings due to their echoey nature, as sound tends to bounce around, making it challenging for me to hear. It took me a few weeks to adjust to this. While there is a valid argument for preserving heritage, it is possible to incorporate accessibility features alongside such preservation efforts. For instance, I have witnessed successful examples of accessibility features in other historic English buildings, like ramps, accessible bathrooms, and lifts in places like Harewood House. Even in Greece, there have been notable efforts to preserve older landscapes while implementing accessibility features. Oxford University can follow suit in this regard.

Unfortunately, even the spaces that are more accessible at Oxford often lack clear signposting for these features. As an example, when I attended the Student Union Freshers’ Fair, there were no clear signs indicating the location of the lifts. I hadn’t thought to check the accessibility information online beforehand, so I initially assumed that there were no lifts to access the second floor. This situation made me assume that the fair was inaccessible to those with mobility-related disabilities. It wasn’t until I checked later that evening that I discovered there was indeed a lift providing access to the second floor.

While some might argue that individuals should always check for accessibility information, people have the right to simply show up and enjoy an event. It becomes much more difficult to do so when accessibility information is not clearly signposted. The issue of inadequate signposting is not unique to this fresher’s fair; I have encountered other buildings where platform lifts were available inside but the presence of stairs at the entrance created confusion. This makes me question whether there needs to be clearer accessibility information or a re-evaluation of how accessibility features are implemented.
I do want to reiterate though that all my peers, teachers and university staff have accommodated me when I have explained what I need. On an individual basis, people at Oxford for most part are happy to help with accessibility related issues and will accommodate you. However, the larger issue lies with how we get Oxford as an institution to take a more proactive approach with disability.

Image credit: Charlotte Kerr