According to the United Nations Development Programme, the global literacy rate for adults with disabilities is as low as 3 per cent, and only 1 per cent for women with disabilities. The 1 billion people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority, accounting for about 15 percent of the global population. Therefore, it is imperative that they are fully included in society, including having equal access to quality education.

However, students, scholars and researchers with disabilities in higher education remain under-represented and they are among the most marginalized, vulnerable, and excluded groups on campus. They struggle with accessibility to learning facilities and face various forms of stigma and discrimination, as well as barriers to exercising their rights. Inclusive education is important not only for students, scholars and academics with disabilities but the societies they live in, as it helps to combat discrimination, and to promote diversity and participation.

In the disability and higher education interview series, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) highlights the contributions of intellectuals with disabilities to the world of academia and explores ways to build a truly inclusive learning environment. This article discusses how built spaces on campuses play a role in fostering inclusivity that will benefit not only scholars with physical disabilities, but the academic community as a whole.

Emma Cooper-Williams is a postgraduate student of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She has cerebral palsy, which necessitates her frequent use of a wheelchair. Navigating higher education while having a physical disability, Emma is passionate about social issues and health, “My studies have shown me how all-encompassing health is, how social issues tie into health issues and taught me what kind of social impact I would like to have, as well as helping me to create a philosophy of work that promotes justice and equity.”

In Emma’s opinion, her disability has played a critical role in her academic experience and prepared her to pursue her goal of becoming a social justice advocate. For Emma, it takes courage to ask for accommodations when she needs them, as she often feels like she might be a burden for needing such accommodations. However, it is important for her to speak up and represent not only herself, but all students with disabilities.

Emma says her university has provided her with academic support and accommodations as a student with a disability, including a campus mapping project it undertook last year as part of its efforts to make the campus more accessible for students with disabilities. The project, which Emma participated in, involved collecting data on the accessibility of campus infrastructure and noting which spaces were not accessible, with “only staircases and no ramp, or having doors that did not have automatic openers.” It enabled the university to discover what routes remained inaccessible to students with physical disabilities which will inform renovation plans.

Emma said it is imperative that initiatives to improve accessibility of architectural designs on campus are student-led, because “School officials can guess what students [with disabilities] need, but they can only really cater to their needs when they listen to those have lived that experience.” Such student-staff consultation is valuable as it “helps students advocate for access that is going to benefit them.” Making the physical environment more accessible to students with physical disabilities will “allow the university to have a wider range of students contributing to academic discourse and conducting research projects, which will in turn benefit the university by providing knowledge and expertise to all academic fields, because people with disabilities are present everywhere, in all fields.”

“Most of the infrastructure designed to make learning spaces accessible to those with disabilities will actually be used by many people who do not have disabilities,” said Professor Paul Bracher, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Saint Louis University in the United States. Professor Bracher also uses a wheelchair as a result of a benign spinal cord tumor that stretched his vertebrae. He provided examples of differently abled people utilizing amenities such as additional elevators, automatic door openers and wide doorways simply due to the convenience they provide. Building a more inclusive physical environment will benefit the whole academic community and the world at large as “an evolved society is one that recognizes that people should be accommodated so that they can participate and be able to make contributions to the world as best they can.”

Speaking about challenges that hinder building accessible spaces on campuses, Professor Bracher pointed out the biggest problem is that most people simply “don’t even think about it [accessibility], it is an afterthought.” He recognized that it can be costly to make spaces accessible for those with physical disabilities. For example, “Making accessible bathrooms requires more space and more land mass, which costs money.” However, he hoped that organizations and institutions would recognize that “Even though some of these things are expensive, it is a necessary investment, otherwise, you are excluding people that could make contributions to your mission.”

Professor Bracher noted that for most people without physical disabilities, “Meeting up for coffee or getting to a seminar hall would take minimal planning,” but for him there is a lot more planning involved. “I think about how I can navigate inaccessible built spaces constantly,” he said. “If I’m going somewhere, I’m googling ahead of time to find out if there is handicap seating, parking, accessible toilets.” Having a disability is like “a tax on your wallet and a tax on your time, since you have to come up with ways to navigate a world that was not built with the disabled in mind.”

Professor Bracher advises universities to “Give careful consideration to aspects of design that ensure that spaces allow for the easy flow of traffic.” Institutions should be more thoughtful when constructing physical infrastructure for their spaces because when they fail to do so it results in architectural blind spots, such as the aforementioned lack of wheelchair accessible ramps and automatic door openers. These blind spots can take a mental toll on campus members with physical disabilities.

Professor Bracher hopes that university campuses will work to make the built environment more inclusive and welcoming rather than excluding people who can contribute to their mission. “Every individual can pursue their dreams and a vocation where they feel enriched and make a difference towards improving society.