EXCLUSIVE: New accommodation at UWE Bristol opens up opportunities for students with disabilities


Many young disabled people are potentially missing out on vital higher education due to a lack of suitable living options, says Centre for Accessible Environments’ Associate Consultant Caroline Lewis. Here, Caroline discusses the impact of the lack of accessible accommodation on disabled students and shares details of a project to provide more inclusive living space for disabled students at UWE Bristol (University of the West of England).

If you’re a young person considering going to university, how would you approach it? What would you study? Would you research which universities would be best for your subject? How far away from home would you be willing to travel? What would you be willing to spend? Your options and opportunities are vast.  

If, however, you’re a disabled student, your choices are limited, and you may find yourself having to ask many more questions – including, will I be able to find not only affordable, but accessible accommodation?

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Obstacles to opportunities

Research has shown that disabled students accessing higher education face many obstacles in harnessing opportunities that non-disabled peers don’t face (and don’t have to consider).

Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDI Hub) and Snowdon Trust’s Global Student Survey earmarks six challenges in its Executive Summary including that: ‘Accessible accommodation options are limited and expensive; with challenges across both the private and university markets’.

The survey’s recommendation is that ‘Universities need to provide affordable accessible accommodation to align with the costs and options available for non-accessible accommodation on campus’.

However, accommodation is just one aspect within a chain of identified barriers such as funding and assistive technology through to social and learning opportunities.

Making higher education accessible

Inclusive design and access experts, the Centre for Accessible Environments are working to reduce the barriers for disabled students studying at UWE Bristol (University of the West of England). CAE have been working with architects Stride Treglown on a new accessible student accommodation project for the past 18 months.

This project was more than a design of the bedrooms, we also considered communal spaces like, kitchens, social spaces and the external environment connected with student accommodation. All of those spaces within UWE Bristol count towards a student’s university experience: being able to meet with peers, and engage in all aspects of student life, were just as important for a students’ university experience. as the subject they study.

Building more accessible accommodation

Planning permission has just been received for the UWE Bristol scheme comprising of 900 bed spaces due for completion in 2023.  The accommodation includes a mix of bedroom types, aligned with a range of rent levels, to suit different students’ needs.

The design team led numerous face-to-face and virtual workshops with stakeholders, as well as issuing a student questionnaire to gather views on issues related to the new accommodation.

The feedback from students directly informed the scheme’s final bedroom mix and social facilities. Bedroom types include wheelchair accessible rooms with hoist provisions, which will have a door to an adjacent room to support the need for an overnight carer.

In addition, there are accessible footprint rooms. These have standard furniture that can be retrofitted if required (upon student uptake) and are located on different levels and in different blocks.

Accessibility & unseen impairments

For disabled students with vision loss, deafness, hearing loss, or mobility impairment, the ‘standard’ room layout has been designed to include, for example, colour contrast, lighting and visual alarms, to cater to whoever may use it.

Consideration has been given to the orientation of buildings, their entrances and spatial relationship to car and bicycle parking, and ensuring access to all areas via sloped pathways across the site. All of these design elements dictate how accessible the site will ultimately be.

A continuous accessible pedestrian route, free from obstructions, has been ensured throughout the site. Along these routes there will be a selection of seating with back and arm rests as well as tables that will allow access for wheelchair users.

All external steps are provided with tactile corduroy paving and handrails.  Designated accessible car parking spaces match the number of accessible bedrooms provided and additional spaces will be provided for any subsequent retro-fit rooms.

Interior designers have also considered colour palettes and ensured sufficient contrast between surfaces and furniture and fittings. This allows for the personalisation of space to enable students to feel at home and assists with orientation and wayfinding.

Where to from here?

Our hope is that this project will work towards reducing one of the obstacles disabled students may face as they exercise their independence, and ease some of those additional questions that shouldn’t have to be asked (e.g. if I want to go to university, where will I live?).

UWE will open its new student accommodation in 2022 and in the meantime CAE will continue to work with the project’s design team through the next RIBA design to ensure that inclusive access and facilities continue to be delivered.

 CAE will continue to offer support to universities across the country to ensure their student halls are inclusive.

The Government recently published its national disability strategy focus and it was good to see a strong focus on education. Not having a suitable home/room to rent at university is one of the reasons many disabled people miss out on university, and that’s not right, is it?

Caption: An ensuite bedroom planned for the project.

Tags : Centre for Accessible Environmentsstudent accomodation
Sarah Clarke

The author Sarah Clarke

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