Improving access on campus

I work at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, UK. Based in the School of Health Sciences, I’m a Senior Lecturer in Research, working with people to improve their management of long-term conditions. I’m also a wheelchair user.

In the 1960s UEA’s campus was designed with the intent of creating a sense of community. Unfortunately, back in the ‘60s, people with disabilities were not considered to be a usual part of the university’s community. So our campus was built without implementing the principles of universal design and included inherent barriers to access.

I joined UEA in 2009. As my own disability progressed and I needed to use a wheelchair to get around, I hit many of these barriers. Some were physical – heavy doors, which put me at risk of dislocating my shoulder again; some were attitudinal, such as requiring my department to spend an entire year’s budget excess to power-up key doors (that made me real popular). When I started to try and advise my university on the design of new buildings, I was met with condescension, incomprehension, and conflicting priorities. I was usually ignored and told it wasn’t that important an issue. When I suggested some new heavy doors to seminar rooms should be powered-up, I was told this wasn’t a “green” option. It was a very frustrating time. Whilst I was getting some personal accommodations, I could see new building and refurbishments being constructed with yet more access barriers built in.

Then we got a new Vice-chancellor, Professor David Richardson. In his first days as VC he held an open meeting with staff. I sat at the front of the room in my wheelchair. I challenged him by saying that even new buildings on campus were not accessible, and that UEA wasn’t using its in-house expertise to make them so. He invited me to have coffee with him in one of these new buildings, where I demonstrated the problems I had getting around a brand new building that had had millions spent on it. He thought this was unacceptable, so he asked me to help set up the Access All Areas Team. I wrote the terms of reference for the group, a key priority being that anyone with a disability – staff or student – could attend meetings and inform the decisions of the group.

We took the existing jobs list which was created from the mandatory accessibility audit. The legislative standard for access in buildings (Schedule M) is minimal – if you have a step-free, powered front door and a disabled toilet, you’ve pretty much met the standard. While the existing audit met this standard, we added a lot of jobs that are extra to that standard. We have an annual central budget of £300,000, but we have over 100 buildings on campus, and a single powered door can cost £15,000 to buy and install. If we only addressed our highest priority items, this would cost over £1 million.

We reprioritised the job list. We prioritised safety and being able to get around the campus. So we encouraged the Fire Safety Team to buy evacuation chairs. In the event of a fire, someone with a mobility impairment can sit in an evacuation chair and be rolled safely down the stairs by a fire warden. This made many more teaching spaces accessible. We reprogrammed some of our newer lifts so they can now be used in the event of fire, making more of our rooms fully accessible for those who can’t get out of their wheelchair and into an evacuation chair. We have installed 162 powered doors in the last three years. These were prioritised as front doors, then corridor doors, then teaching space doors. Public areas were given top priority, followed by student areas and then staff areas. A quarter of a million pounds was spent on a new fire lift to ensure that the students’ union is fully accessible. We also have more fully accessible teaching rooms, accessible toilets, ramps, better signs, etc.

We have created guidelines for architects, explaining how we want all future buildings to be designed. These guidelines follow the principles of universal design, so our new buildings will work for our entire community. We are aiming to build the most accessible science laboratories in the UK, which will include a changing place – which is a disabled toilet with a bench and hoist to allow people to be changed with dignity. In fact, we have established a policy that all new buildings and major refurbishments will install a changing place.

We held our first Disabled Access Day in March of this year, celebrating our access improvements, and we are now moving on to address attitudinal barriers. We are working to improve the experience of students with disabilities by improving the knowledge and attitudes of the students’ union’s societies and sport clubs. They are receiving mental health first aid training from MHFA England and I’m teaching a course in disability confidence.

External bodies have noticed our expertise and we are starting to advise charities, councils, and service providers about improving accessibility and disability awareness. We are aiming not just for an accessible campus, but one that sits within an accessible community, welcoming to everyone.

We have changed university policy at the highest level. It is now part of the Corporate Plan that the campus is to be “accessible for all”. Today we have nearly 1500 students on our campus and 12% of them have disabilities – a 50% increase over the last 10 years. Diversity has long been identified as leading to greater commercial success. Disabled people improve our university’s diversity and so our potential for success. Having a disability means that people develop many skills such as problem solving, time and energy management, and communication skills. We think these skills are hugely valuable to our university community. We believe that if the barriers to participation are removed, then people with disabilities can demonstrate their brilliance. We want all our students to be brilliant. We know our job is not yet complete. We have come a long way, but we have further to go before we achieve our aim of a campus that is accessible to all.

If you would like a copy of our Access Guide, or would like me to speak to your institution about the value of improving accessibility, please email me on

About the Author

Photograph of Katherine, who is Caucasian with short brown hair, smiling in tinted blue glasses

Dr. Katherine Deane

Dr Katherine Deane is a Senior Lecturer in Research at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. UK. She works with people with long term conditions to research the best way to manage them. She is also interested in disability and the built environment and is working to improve campus accessibility in particular. She has a number of long term conditions herself and is a wheelchair user – which gives her insight that just can’t be gotten any other way. She is a self-confessed geek and is raising a geek son alongside her geek husband.

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