Poor accessibility at COFA


A recent Tharunka investigation into accessibility for mobility-impaired students on the College of Fine Arts (COFA) Campus has found several outstanding problems that need to be addressed.

COFA students with mobility impairment are finding it difficult to get around the campus. Amy Mills, a COFA Councillor and Disability Officer – who also has mobility impairment due to Cystic Fibrosis, a liver transplant and diabetes – told Tharunka, “I do feel angry and disadvantaged [at the current situation at COFA].”

However, the problem is one that affects more than students with disabilities.

“It’s not just disabled students, it’s mature students, it’s expectant mothers…it’s students who have broken bones, and it’s even students carrying their weight’s worth of art supplies,” Ms Mills highlighted.

There are several specific problems facing students with mobility impairment on the COFA Campus, Tharunka has been told. Many relate to the design of the campus, which, despite recent developments, remains unfriendly to the mobility impaired.

Such problems include no access to the library because of a broken lift; no ramp at the main entrance to campus (partly due to a one-year delay in the construction of a cafe); lack of direct access to several buildings; and doors in some of the buildings – such as D block – are too heavy to be opened by mobility-impaired students (particularly those in wheelchairs).

“If even the main entrance doesn’t welcome me, how can I be expected to enjoy my time at university?” Ms Mills told Tharunka.

Dr Scott East, recently appointed as director of student experience at COFA, agrees that more needs to be done.

“I think most people would acknowledge there is more that needs to be done to improve the physical accessibility of our campus,” Dr East told Tharunka. “Universities operate within a legislative framework, which requires no disadvantage for students living with disabilities compared with the greater student population,” said Dr East.

Notwithstanding these problems, very few formal complaints have been received by the Student Equity and Disabilities Unit (SEADU).

Dr Ann Jardin, Director of SEADU, noted that she had received only two complaints in relation to access issues at COFA in 2013. The first of those related to refitting and changing the route of a charter bus to COFA for a mobility-impaired student, which has since been resolved.

A second issue raised was in relation to the doors at COFA, which are very heavy in some areas and problematic for mobility-impaired students. As Dr Jardin told Tharunka, SEADU staff did a walk around COFA Campus with Facilities Management (FM) in the first half of 2013 to make FM aware of student concerns.

When asked if FM had made any proposals to remedy the situation since that walk around, Dr Jardin told Tharunka, “Facilities Management do not always communicate them [proposals] back to us.”

Ms Mills said that responsibility for these issues “lie with everyone: students, staff and Facilities [Management]. It is the staff’s responsibility to ensure that equality is upheld at COFA and that no student ever feels like they are disadvantaged because of their circumstances”.

Delays in remedying the situation can also negatively impact on the studies of students with mobility impairment, and can even put them off continuing their education

When asked if students feel that the current situation would put students with mobility impairment off enrolling at COFA, Ms Mills agreed, telling Tharunka, “If anything, I think that it would dissuade future students from choosing to study at COFA.”

A key problem affecting the studies of mobility-impaired students at COFA is the situation with the library.

“At present, there is no access to the library at COFA for students who are mobility impaired; every student should have access to the same resources,” said Ms Mills.

Despite recognition of current problems at COFA, rectifying the situation is often incremental at best.

“There are very real challenges involved in providing a physically accessible site in the midst of on-going building works,” Dr East told Tharunka.

With regard to changes in accessibility at the main entrance of COFA, Dr East said, “The upgrade is part of the City of Sydney’s Oxford Street Cultural Quarter Action Plan and is the gateway through which students and visitors will soon be able to pass from the liveliest cultural precinct in Sydney to the city’s leading art and design school.“

Recent meetings between COFA councillors and Dr East looked at ways to improve the campus for all students, including those with mobility impairment.

According to Ms Mills, the first step in this arduous process towards rectifying this situation is through informing the student body, so pressure can be put on other relevant bodies within the university.

“Students haven’t been informed about what’s going on at COFA, and I think there needs to be better transparency. Let’s let the students have a say about this discrimination at COFA,” Ms Mills told Tharunka.

Facilities Management were contacted for this story. Unfortunately, no comment was received.

Matthew Baker