Text Lieke Muijsert
How accessible is WUR for people with disabilities? Together with Master’s student Soe Mattijssen, who has been in a wheelchair since she was 12 due to a rare skin disease, student editor Lieke Muijsert set out to answer that question. And it was quite hard work.
I’m going on an outing with Soe today. She has brought an extra wheelchair along so I can experience the campus like she does. We start at Orion. Soe can park her car close to the entrance in a disabled parking space. Ideal, she thinks, except for having to wait for crossing cyclists who have priority. ‘I have sometimes waited there for half an hour.’ In most of the uni’s lecture rooms, wheelchair spaces are either right at the back or right at the front. Soe prefers to sit high up at the back, so she doesn’t have to look up at the screen. ‘And also because some lecturers think the person at the front can answer all the questions.’ In two of the large lecture theatres in Orion, there is a platform at the back for wheelchair users, but Soe prefers not to sit there: ‘An extra special place, in case you don’t feel different enough yet.’ There are nicer spots for wheelchair users in the lecture rooms in Forum and Aurora: in the back row, there are even tables that a wheelchair fits under. ‘There I feel more like I belong with the rest.’ But Soe still prefers to switch to a regular chair – and fortunately she can do this herself – because her wheelchair has an especially low backrest.
The toilets in Orion are tricky for wheelchair users: they all have a threshold. I try to enter a cubicle: first cross the threshold, then turn, then go back over it with your front wheels to reach the handle and pull the door shut, quickly backing over the threshold again before it does.
It’s not very convenient, but it is all doable
‘That’s why the threshold is not so convenient,’ says Soe dryly. In the toilet on the ground floor, the sink is almost in the doorway. ‘That’s when you notice that it was not designed by a wheelchair user.’ Fortunately, there are no thresholds in the disabled toilets in Aurora, Forum, Radix and Omnia.
We leave Orion through the revolving door. It turns out to be too small for a wheelchair if someone has to come out of it first. So at busy times, the receptionist lets Soe in through the emergency exit. There is a button on the revolving door to give you more time to enter. ‘But personally I get very irritated if I have to go through it at a snail’s pace,’ says Soe.
We go to the Forum via the bridge. It is full of anti-slip bumps and they slow us down. Soe says she sometimes goes a longer way round to avoid them. ‘You feel those bumps on your front wheels particularly and when I have sore feet, I just can’t bear those vibrations.’
The revolving doors at Forum are very doable, even for me. It’s a pity the disabled button is positioned to the left of the door, where everyone comes out. Soe shows me where the disabled toilet is on the ground floor. To get there, she has to go all the way down the corridor where the deans have their offices.
In the morning, the lift in the Forum is every wheelchair user’s idea of hell: everyone rushes towards it. Soe: ‘There’ve been a few times when I was the only one left downstairs. And I only needed to go to the second floor.’ The lift doors open and it was only because Soe was so quick to hold the door open for me that I made it in time.
Aurora and Impulse
We continue on our tour and drive towards Aurora, once again over a bumpy bridge. But we see that the left lane isn’t bumpy. That makes for a much smoother ride. Beyond the bridge is a slope that probably feels like an insignificant mound to pedestrians, but from my wheelchair it looks like Mount Everest.
We take another look at Impulse en route. There is sloped seating in ‘Speakers Corner’ where debates and performances take place. To get in, people with disabilities have to take a small lift up, then the regular lift down and then go up a carefully positioned ramp onto the stage. It all looks very nice, but I’m not sure it’s very convenient. ‘Well, it’s doable,’ says Soe gently, and I realize how much patience you need when you have a disability, and how asking for help makes you assertive.
On the way to Aurora, I start to feel my arms quite badly and blisters are appearing on my palms. Soe offers to push me, but I want the whole experience.
At Aurora, we have to drive up a gravel path to the entrance. Soe often lifts her front wheels up for this to reduce the resistance. I don’t have the nerve for that trick. Inside is a smooth floor and that’s a lot easier.
In the morning, lift in the Forum is every wheelchair user’s idea of hell
We discover that the coffee machines and waste bins in Aurora are very high, making it almost impossible to scan your card for coffee or fill your water bottle, for instance. Soe stays positive: ‘It’s not very convenient, but again, it’s doable.’
We go back out and Soe asks me if I’m still okay. Yes, I’m fine. I make it to Atlas, where a long incline awaits us. Fortunately, Soe’s wheelchair has a motor and I can hang on and be towed. Atlas’s revolving door is so big that we can enter side by side, but first we have to get over the rubber mat in front of it. Once inside, we take the lift down to somewhere we can get out without having to go down the ramp.
Omnia and Leeuwenborch
Before we inspect Leeuwenborch, we pop into Omnia. Soe quickly spots the signs for the disabled parking area, with the entrance with a lift hidden in a dark corner next to it. We ring the bell and are soon picked up by a friendly staff member. He is happy to show us all the rooms in Omnia and operates the lifts for us. Then we get a special tour behind the scenes and we’re even allowed a peek into the storeroom. In the auditorium, there are special places for wheelchairs and ramps can be placed in front of the stage so you can easily ride on to it. That looks good. Only the standing tables are not so good for socializing for Soe and me in our wheelchairs.
We go to Leeuwenborch by car. The disabled parking spaces are right by the door, but they also serve as loading and unloading bays and the delivery vans sometimes park in front of the ramp to the entrance, so you can’t get a run-up. And you definitely need one. Soe suggests I give it a go and she asks our photographer to walk behind me in case I don’t make it. I take a long run-up and get about half a metre up the ramp. Luckily, the photographer can push me the rest of the way.
When I have sore feet, I just can’t bear those vibrations
It’s too steep even for Soe’s little motor. If she wants to avoid this dreadful slope, she has to go down a path into the bike shed and take the lift from there. The lift is ‘snug’ and we can just about squeeze in side by side. We go back out through the main entrance and via the ramp with ridges. We just about make it. Turns out Leeuwenborch isn’t great for wheelchair users.
Our tour of the campus is over. I’m dead tired when Soe drops me off at the bike racks. Despite the obstacles we encountered, Soe says: ‘It won’t ever be plain sailing and really fun. But as long as there are facilities, that’s something. WUR gets a high score as far as I’m concerned, an 8.5.’
Soe gives WUR an 8.5 for wheelchair accessibility: ‘There are shortcomings, of course. The biggest one is the gravel paths. But there are also many strong points, such as the helpfulness of the staff. The university tries very hard to help people with disabilities and a lot is made possible.’
Lecture theatres: 8
People (assistance): 9
Revolving doors (most of them): 9
Gravel paths: 5