University leaves disabled student segregated at the back of lecture

A disabled student has been left “isolated” and “segregated” by her university’s failure to make her lectures accessible to her.

Sarah-Marie Da Silva, a first-year zoology student and a wheelchair-user, has been trying since her first day on the course to persuade the University of Hull to make changes that would allow her to attend lectures alongside fellow students.

She said the university’s failure to act on her access concerns persuaded her to publish a photograph taken by one of her lecturers last Friday, which showed her being forced to sit alone at the back of a lecture theatre – segregated from fellow students – without a desk to take notes on.

The university later admitted the situation was “not acceptable”.

Now she has warned she will consider legal action against the university for breaching the Equality Act if it fails to take action.

Hull is just the latest university to face complaints from disabled students and staff over the last 18 months.

Last month, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how disabled students had accused University College London of repeatedly failing to make reasonable adjustments and overcharging them for their accessible accommodation.

Last summer, disabled students at London South Bank University said they were taking legal action over claims of disability discrimination.

And in August 2018, DNS reported how the University of Liverpool was facing claims that it forced a disabled member of staff to scour the campus for accessible rooms in which she could deliver her lectures, and even told her that it might be considered “reasonable” for her to go down stairs on her bottom in some circumstances rather than be timetabled into ground floor or fully accessible rooms.

In some lectures, Da Silva has been forced to sit at the back in isolation because of a flight of steps, while in others she has had to sit at the front near the lecturer, separated again from her fellow students.

Sometimes, after arriving to see a set of stairs that prevent her from joining other students, she has left before the lecture begins after finding the access barriers she was facing too distressing.

On other occasions, she has been able to access the front of the lecture theatre, where there has been a moveable desk.

But these desks have a brake on their wheels that she cannot reach because of her impairment, so she can only use the desk if she arrives early enough and the lecturer is able to help her adjust it.

Even if there is a desk and she can use it, she is still left isolated from her fellow students at the front of the class.

She told Disability News Service yesterday (Wednesday): “I have experienced access issues in pretty much every building I’ve been in and some of the buildings are like three years old – I’ve been told this by several staff members.

“I feel segregated from everyone, I’m isolated and I feel abandoned by the university.

“It has severely impacted my mental health. It is degrading and inhumane.”

She has had support since September from lecturers, her tutor, the student union and the university’s disability team, as well as her boyfriend and her university wheelchair basketball team.

But she said the university had “done nothing except move to slightly more accessible lecture theatres and then ignore us”.

She added: “I’ve gone through many departments, lecturers, my tutor and tried to suggest temporary and long-term solutions and nothing has been done.

“I don’t blame my lecturers or the disability team because they’ve been trying their best, but it’s the people higher up who are refusing to do anything, other than move me about.

“I won’t consider legal action until Hull university comes forward with a solution.

“If it’s not good enough then I will consider legal action.”

The university has only commented on the access failure shown in the photograph, and it has refused to comment on the other concerns Da Silva has raised throughout her course.

A spokesperson said: “We are very sorry that this has happened, clearly it is not acceptable.

“We take these matters very seriously and a colleague from our student services team is looking into what has happened now.

“We are committed to working with our students to put in place any additional support or adjustments where needed. Unfortunately, it is clear this hasn’t happened in this case.

“We carry out independent accessibility surveys and audits across our estate and make every effort to ensure the campus is accessible for all.

“As a university we are continuing to invest in and develop our campus and ensuring our buildings are accessible forms a large part of this.

“This particular building is listed and as a result we are unable to make structural alterations to this room.

“A rigorous process is undertaken to ensure rooms allocated for teaching sessions take into account students’ additional requirements but unfortunately it is clear a mistake has happened on this occasion.

“We will immediately look into what happened and ensure that we take necessary steps to make sure this does not happen again.”

But when asked to comment on the other concerns raised by Da Silva, a spokesperson said: “We will continue to work with Sarah-Marie to offer the support that she needs.

“It would be inappropriate for us to comment any further on individual cases.”

13 February 2020. News provided by John Pring at