Sills in front of buildings (for instance at Café In de Smitse and the V building), doors that are too heavy (like in Polak and the quiet room at the university library), inaccessible disabled toilets (Mandeville), no suitable toilets (G building), too steep a slope (Institutenlaan), broken lifts (like in Theil), impractical routes (Sanders), buttons for the lifts that are too high (Tinbergen). Kyra Mulders has had enough of it, to put it mildly.
Should we turn left or right? That question immediately comes to mind when we leave the EM offices between the Tinbergen and Theil buildings. If you’re not in a wheelchair, you don’t have to worry about it. For Kyra (23), a Health Sciences and Philosophy student, it’s a different story. She wants to show us just how inaccessible the campus is for her. We turn right, towards Theil. We fetch Kyra’s coat and her friend’s Georgina Aránzazu Dijkstra (Psychology and Philosophy) from the university library. That way, they can show us a shortcut to get to Theil, because the lifts there were broken for a long time.
‘Excuse my language, but it really is shit’
“This is my fourth year here”, Kyra tells us. “And all that time I have been sending emails to the university. Doors that are too heavy, doorsills that I can’t get over, I told them all about it. Sometimes they reply and say they’ll do something about it, sometimes only that the modifications will cost 1.500 euros, for instance, and that they are not prepared to do it for such a small group of people. And if something improves, something else on the campus gets worse. Like a step gets relaid and then the ramp is too steep.” Her friend, Georgina, adds: “Before I met Kyra, I had no idea how bad it was. I’d just walk everywhere. Now I can see how ridiculously inaccessible it is here.” Kyra only has one way to sum it up: “The campus is a veritable hell for people in wheelchairs.”
Just outside the university library, at the bottom of Institutenlaan, Kyra can move forward on her own. If it gets any steeper, she needs help from a friend. “When I had just started studying here and didn’t know many people yet, I used to drive my car between classes from the car park at Park Noord to a parking spot at Van de Goot. Otherwise I had no idea how to get to the buildings on the other side of the campus.” Georgina’s calves have to be put to work if she has to cross the bridge over the road. It’s here temporarily because there’s work going on, but it is an extra inconvenience. “And it’s slippery with this rainy weather,” Georgina points out. “If I slip, Kyra will roll downwards.” That makes the two of them laugh, not so much because they think it’s funny, but because it’s “too bizarre for words”. “Excuse my language, but it really is shit”, is how Georgina describes the situation.
When we enter the Sanders building, the steward greets Kyra and Georgina. “He sometimes helps us,” Kyra explains. Then she points to the tall doors on the right-hand side. She can’t open them. “Great that they’re so high, but no good for me.” The doors to the lecture halls are also difficult to open. “I was late once and then I couldn’t get in. I couldn’t open the door.” The door to the library in the building is also too heavy and the alternative route has a staircase.
The lift to the first floor was out of order for a while, so Kyra had to take the stairs. She’s got Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, an inherited disorder that affects your connective tissues. Not only does it affect her muscles, but all her organs as well. Heart problems, stomach ailments, Kyra has the whole bang shoot. Simply climbing the stairs is not so easy. It really takes its toll on her health.
On the way to the Mandeville building, Kyra reckons she got better grades when education was online. “Suddenly it was possible for me to ‘attend’ all my lectures. Physical education is more exhausting, even without the challenges of getting everywhere.” It’s also a problem in the Mandeville building. The pavement rises in front of the entrance, and directly behind it is a revolving door. She has to pick up speed to enter on her own, but often there is a queue in front of the entrance and so it’s not possible. Once again Georgina calf muscles are challenged.
We take the lift to the third floor. To T3-9947, between the escalator and the lifts. “This is the worst place on the entire campus”, Kyra tells us. She calls it “the inaccessible toilet for the disabled”. First there’s a doorsill, so Kyra can’t roll in easily, and it is difficult to close the door. Meanwhile, the door is blocking the entrance to the ladies’ toilet. The toilet roll holder is attached to the armrest in such a way that the roll falls off if the armrest is up. That’s why the roll is somewhere else, so high that you can’t reach it from a wheelchair. It’s practically impossible to wash your hands, Kyra tells us. “Particularly if you’re someone with reduced hand functions. The tap is too impractical.”
V building and Polak
We head towards the V building past the bicycle shed at the Spar. “They should lay this pavement again”, Kyra points out. “I hobble along all over the place, that’s how uneven it is.” A bit later we’re on the street between Van der Goot and the V building. Kyra can’t get up onto the pavement on the side where the red temporary building is located. The slope is too steep, so she falls over backwards if she doesn’t have help.
Then she has to go around it on the way to the Polak building. Once there, Kyra often has to wait a long time for the lift. Sometimes twenty minutes. “There are only two lifts for the whole building and there are a lot of students”, Kyra tells us. “So I join the queue at the lift, but with my wheelchair I take up more space than people without wheelchairs. So I don’t always fit. Especially in the second lift, because it’s smaller. And people aren’t always very helpful. Students sometimes even tell me that they don’t have the time to hold the door open for me.”
Is there not a single building that Kyra can get into without problems? Yes, there is, Kyra tells us. The ground-level Food Plaza. “There are no doorsills there and it has the most accessible toilet on campus.”
More than just her wheelchair
That’s where Kyra and Georgina wrote a long email to the rector magnificus on a Friday evening. “Is the campus not meant for me because I am disabled?” she wrote in the email. “Because that’s the message I’m getting loud and clear. No education, no lectures, no toilet, not being able to study in silence, or even take an exam in peace, not even being able to have a drink with fellow students. And that is just a short summary of my grievances.” On Sunday evening, Kyra got a response from the rector. She was shocked by Kyra’s message and she promised she would get back to her.
“I want to be more than the girl in the wheelchair”, says Kyra as we wait in Sanders for her evening lecture to begin. She’s not sure what the university could do for her. “I’ve never come across the perfect world. The university is a very bureaucratic environment. What I’ve shown you now are only a few examples. So there’s enough that can be done. I really do hope that things will change. Not only for me, but for all other students in wheelchairs.”