‘Checking In and Checking it Out – A Blind Survey of St John’s Accessibility’?

By Ming Luo, University of Western Australia,

Ming is visiting Durham this summer 2018 as a Matariki Global Citizenship Fellow

What does it mean to be a good citizen?

Each group and individual has their own understanding of citizenship, but many would agree that It means being respectful to your neighbours; that it means giving back to your community; That it means being law abiding and that it means participating in improving and strengthening your country’s institutions.

But what does it mean to be a good global citizen?

I’m an undergraduate student from the land down under, and I have ventured here to the great Kingdom on a quest to explore the concept of global citizenship.

Personally, my current understanding of being a good global citizen is taking all the principles of a good citizen and applying them to the global arena. To me, it involves showing respect to all, wherever you go; being accepting and inclusive of all, independent of nationality, sexuality, wealth, or ability. To me, it means playing a role, in whatever capacity you can, to fulfil the cheesy line of ‘making the world a better place’.

So today, I set out to St John’s to see what I can contribute as a global citizen. As a person living with a vision-impairment, I am particularly passionate about accessibility and the integration of people with disabilities into communities. I believe that it is also an important part of global citizenship, and hence am eager to check out what St John’s college has to offer.

I have conducted experiential accessibility audits as part of the youth disability advocacy organisation that I am a member of back home, and St John’s has so kindly (and bravely) offered up their facilities for my scrutiny. I arrive at the college, and am greeted by a row of beautiful Georgian structures. Though thee seem to be separate structures to the regular street-walker, the buildings have all been amalgamated into one interior, creating a college that is a quirky maze of steps, small windy corridors and half doors. Though this fills the college with a sense of mystery and history, it probably also fills it with many accessibility complaints.

As disability awareness is quite a relatively recent concept, it is no surprise that accessibility was not an aspect that the Georgians considered in their buildings. This unfortunately means that it is practically impossible to make the entire college physically accessible without flattening and re-building the entire thing. However, St John’s has quite an inclusive and egalitarian culture, and have already taken initiatives to work around the restrictions of the physical environment to ensure that people with physical disabilities can be accommodated in the college. I was particularly impressed with the accessible rooms, which were adequately spacious and included a device that would make the bed vibrate if the alarm system went off.

Though there may not be much more St John’s can do to improve the ease of access for wheelchair users, there are little things that can be put in place to increase the accessibility of the college for people with other disabilities. For instance,  contrast markings for stairs and tactile indicators could probably save quite a few vision-impaired or blind people from face-planting down the stairs. Simple English and pictorial signs could be put in place, which could benefit who have difficulties with reading. Dedicated quiet spaces could also be set out to provide break-out spaces for people that may suffer from sensory overload or anxiety. The fact about putting in place such adjustments that many people often overlook or under weigh is that they not only benefit people with disabilities, but can also be useful for a variety of demographics, including the older population, children, or the wider population in general.

 However, perhaps the most important element to access and inclusion are open, friendly and understanding attitudes, and this is a major asset at St John’s. All the staff members I have come across today are warm and eager to help. Negative attitudes are the most difficult barriers to change, and St John’s is already one big step ahead of many, with their open-minded and open-armed approach to accessibility.

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