STORIES

Students 23 June 2022

‘We have the right to study here’

How does VU Amsterdam treat people with disabilities? We put the University to the test with two students: one blind, the other a wheelchair user.
BY Bryce Benda PICTURE Rob Bömer

Would you be able to find your lecture hall with your eyes closed? For Stan Bronstring, a second-year law student, this is a daily reality. Stan is blind. Together with Nienke Heijne Makkreel, third-year student of Law in Society and a wheelchair user, we take a tour around the campus. What obstacles will we come across?  

We meet one afternoon in the central hall of the main building and walk and roll to the New University Building (NU building). We encounter the first obstacle straight away: the revolving door. Nienke smoothly steers her electric wheelchair through the doors, but it is harder for Stan. “The revolving doors are a bit of an issue for me; I never go through them on my own. Fortunately, my fellow students are very kind and they help me almost every day.”

Glass barrier

Accompanied by the soft rattling of Stan’s cane, we head for the NU building, where we hope to have more luck. We go through the entrance (more revolving doors) and take the lift to the third floor. The lift has enough space; six of us fit in it, including a wheelchair. So far, so good. But, when we get out of the lift, we are confronted with a heavy glass door with a black-metal frame that separates the lift area from the rest of the building. The door has to be manually opened inwards; an almost insurmountable barrier for Nienke. After skilfully positioning her wheelchair, she finally manages to open the door with her right hand. With great difficulty, she pushes it further open and hastily squeezes her wheelchair into the narrow opening. With a clang of metal on metal, the door bangs awkwardly against the wheelchair, but the way is clear for Nienke to continue.

Huge pity

“It’s a new building, so I think it’s a shame they didn’t make it wheelchair friendly”, says Nienke. “I know other people in wheelchairs for whom it is impossible to go through these doors. An automatic door would make such a big difference.” Stan and Nienke agree that the main building is much better in that respect. “Although you have similar doors in the G wing”, Stan notes.

Nienke
Nienke Heijne Makkreel

 

It is a huge pity about the doors in the NU building, because the rest of the building does seem to be sufficiently wheelchair friendly, with spacious corridors, no thresholds, and a disabled toilet on every floor. We find a coffee machine that is too high for Nienke, but as she can adjust the height of her wheelchair, she can still just reach it.   

Out of luck

The toilets in the main building are a problem, says Nienke. “According to the floor plan my study advisor gave me, there are only three disabled toilets: on the ground floor, the first floor and the eighth floor. Very often they are occupied, dirty, or even broken. Sometimes I have to go to another building just to use the toilet.”

You would expect that, for something as important as an examination, the toilet facilities would be in order. But that does not appear to be the case. “VU Amsterdam arranges special exam rooms for people who need extra facilities, which is great, but if that room is on the 13th floor, it means I have to go all the way down to use the toilet. It takes so long with the lift, that it is actually impossible to do that during an exam.”

The TenT examination hall does not have a disabled toilet at all, says Nienke. “If I have an exam there and need to use the toilet, I’m simply out of luck. When I send them an email to complain, the reply is that they are very sorry, but that it’s just the way it is.” According to the VU Amsterdam website, there are seven disabled toilets in the main building, distributed over six of the fifteen floors. Oddly enough, Nienke has not been able to find these four extra toilets.

We continue across the Campusplein square to the Spar supermarket. Nienke has never been inside it in all the three years she has been studying here. “I don’t trust that small lift one bit”, says Nienke referring to the silver-coloured metal lift that indeed looks a bit rickety. “I’ve tried it a few times, but it doesn’t work properly. Once it got stuck halfway. It was terrifying.” “And that staircase next to it is also an issue", says Stan. “It’s doable, but as a blind person you have to be really careful.”

Tired of all the rules

In addition to the physical difficulties of using the VU Amsterdam campus, it also seems to be unnecessarily complicated to request special facilities. Because Nienke cannot write with a pen for long periods of time, she does all her exams digitally. “But I have to fill in a form every time I want to take an exam, and inform my course coordinator. It confounds me, because my condition is really not going to change; it’s permanent.”

Stan
Stan Bronstring

Stan has the same experience. “I have to ask a coordinator for the use of extra facilities again and again and again, while it is perfectly clear what I am entitled to. I don’t understand why there isn’t a central system where that is registered.” In addition, the university is constantly changing the way in which students have to apply for these facilities. Does that improve the system? “Well... not really, ha ha,” laugh Stan and Nienke. “They have changed it four times in the three years I have been studying here”, says Nienke. “Then all of a sudden you have to fill in a form, instead of sending an email,” continues Stan. “So I think: if it works, why change it?”

Stan appreciates that people may wonder what all the fuss is about. “But all those little things together cost a lot of energy.” “That’s why I sometimes wonder if it’s worth the bother”, says Nienke. All these obstacles are not helping to make VU Amsterdam an accessible university. “Accessibility is not a favour that the university grants to its staff and students; it is our right”, says Nienke, in the spirit of her Law in Society degree programme. “The university sometimes seems to think that they have done their best and we have to be grateful for what we’ve got. But that’s not the way I see it.”

Defeats the purpose

We move on to the blue Bellevue building in the centre of the campus, one of the locations where Nienke and Stan follow lectures, and also where the editorial office of Ad Valvas is located. After another almost impossible door for Nienke – including an awkward threshold – we reach the lift. In itself, it is admirable that there is a lift installed in this small two-storey building (ground floor and first floor). But it is not wheelchair friendly, as Nienke demonstrates. “Because I can’t turn around in the lift, I have to ride in backwards. But that is almost impossible, because this lift has a manually operated door.” It really defeats the purpose.

You could also make sure to only schedule classes for people with disabilities in wheelchair-friendly buildings, Nienke suggests. “In my case that should be possible, because I follow a relatively small degree programme.” It is also difficult for Stan to have to follow lectures in so many different locations, because he does not know his way around everywhere. “Fortunately, my fellow students are usually there to help me, but if they are not around it gets difficult. A while back, my father had to come and help me because I did not know the route to the W&N Building. I don’t like being so dependent on others.”

Dispenser at 2 metres height

Despite the obstacles, the two students feel welcome at the university. “I certainly feel at home here”, says Stan. “There is always someone to offer help and I have never felt unwelcome.” Nienke nods enthusiastically in agreement. “It’s certainly not the fault of the people here that some things are so inaccessible to us. The lecturers are also always ready to help, which is great.”

Stan suspects that the main problem is ignorance. “I never stopped to think about the obstacles that someone in a wheelchair faces. But now that I have heard all this from Nienke, I understand it better.”

According to Nienke, it often goes wrong in the design phase. “Designers decide what a disabled toilet should look like, but they are not experts. And then the paper towel dispenser ends up at a height of two metres, which I have no way of reaching. That’s why I think it is so important that the university involves experience experts in decisions like that. If that had been done in the NU building, those awkward doors would never have been installed.”

 

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