She can still remember how she was stopped by a police officer in the Law Faculty canteen. What the hell did she think she was doing here? The whole building should have been cleared, there was a bomb scare! "I explained that I was just working and – being deaf – I couldn’t hear anyone knocking on the door", Jenny Goldschmidt recalls an incident "back in the eighties". She was working for Leiden University as a Professor of Equality and Diversity and was forgotten during an evacuation.
Last month – more than thirty years later – something similar happened when a few deaf members of staff were not evacuated during a fire drill at Van Eyckhof and Van Wijkplaats. "It’s a disgrace; it violates the right to life and threatens the safety of people with an impairment", says Goldschmidt. "It really shouldn’t happen anymore."
Letter of Intent
On 25 January 2018, Leiden University signed a Letter of Intent for more inclusive education, promising an inclusive community in which everyone can participate in the education as equals.
It’s obvious that some things need time, but are they moving fast enough? Hannah Borst, a member of the University Council for CSL, has her doubts. For example, as yet, very little has been arranged for staff with an impairment, she says. She and her fellow party member, Charlotte van Rijsdijk, made a report of their findings. The report, which was discussed the University Council meeting, calls on the Executive Board to disclose which measures the university is currently working on.
"The Personnel Monitor, which examines staff welfare in great detail, does not include any questions about what it’s like to work at the university if you have an impairment, and that’s just awful", says Hannah Borst. "They are completely neglected. We want the next Personnel Monitor to include questions for staff with impairments, so they have a chance to say what they think about working here."
Fresco Sam-Sin, a Sinology lecturer, knows something that needs to change. He does not like the idea that he, a lecturer, must help evacuate a lecture hall in an emergency – not because he wouldn’t know what to do, but because he is partially sighted.
"Staff members like myself can’t accept that responsibility, so what’s Plan B?" Sam-Sin believes that students without impairments can, for the most part, save themselves, but is more worried about those who, like himself, face problems due to impairments. "I imagine that students with an impairment attending my lectures might expect me to help them in an emergency. Well, let’s say I do, and it’s a disaster. Who would be to blame? The university, in my view."
To avoid such situations, Sam-Sin thinks the university should officially exempt lecturers with an impairment from that responsibility. "A solution would be to assign that responsibility to certain students attending the lecture."
Luckily, lecturers won’t have to manage alone, should an emergency arise: an emergency response team (in Dutch: BHV) checks all the lecture rooms and offices and send anyone they find outside. Although the fire drill held last month was not a complete success, the Humanities Faculty’s emergency response annual report for 2017 gave good or adequate reviews for the emergency response team leaders.
So, will the emergency response team get a bad review now? No, replies Menno Tuurenhout, a Faculty Board member. "It probably happened because the emergency response team didn’t know there were deaf people and people with partial hearing in there. Those members of staff weren’t forgotten, because the emergency response team knocked on the doors. The incident has made the emergency response team aware that there could be deaf people and people with partial hearing in the building, so it would be unfair to say: ‘You didn’t do your job properly.’"
Other long-term problems involve wheelchair access. The Humanities’ 2018 Plan for Health, Safety and the Environment, for instance, reports that the Witte Singel-Doelen complex fails to meet the required standards on some points.
The doors at Reuvensplaats, for example, are "extremely difficult (impossible, actually)" to open. Someone in a manually operated wheelchair cannot enter the building without help. The Lipsius, too, has doors with "ordinary door closers", making them hard to open for disabled persons.
The buildings on Van Wijkplaats, Van Eyckhof and De Vrieshof, which are extremely inaccessible for disabled persons, have stone pillars at the entrances in the halls between two very heavy doors but will remain unchanged until the new buildings for the Humanities Campus are ready, Tuurenhout continues. "The way those buildings were designed makes changes impossible." However, he assures Mare that the plans for the new buildings include better access.
At the moment, the lifts in the Lipsius, Vrieshof, Eyckhof, Van Wijkplaats and Reuvensplaats don’t comply with the requirements either. Most of them do not have a seat, there are only visual signs for the floors and the clearance for the lift doors is too narrow, according to the Plan for Health, Safety and the Environment.
These faults mean that students and staff with an impairment often rely on the help of others, although they really want to be able to do as much as they can themselves, Borst and Marcel Melchers from Fenestra Disability Centre explain. Borst gives an example: "Students with an impairment, including those in wheelchairs, at the Law Faculty have to sit their exams in the Old Observatory, where the porter has to open the door for them and assist them in the lift. In the past, they could just sit their exams in the Kamerlingh Onnes Gebouw (KOG), which makes more sense because that building is much more accessible for wheelchairs. Melchers adds: "In the KOG, the inner doors either open automatically or by pressing a button. That’s inclusivity, and it’s much safer in an emergency. Students in wheelchairs should be able to get to lectures without help, but that’s not the case in many buildings."
Melchers gives another example that reveals that this group is more reliant on help than need to be. "Because few of the lecture halls are equipped with an audio induction loop (a device to which deaf people and people with partial hearing can adjust their hearing aids, ed.) the students with partial hearing are forced to ask the lecturers to wear a transmitter so they can follow what is said." Fenestra would like to see as many aids as possible available in the rooms so students only need to arrange the bare minimum themselves. "At the moment, these students feel disadvantaged and often they’re right."
For that matter, Melchers reported the lack of audio induction loops to the university via Mare back in 2015. "And nothing has been done about it. Even if it’s not required by law, there’s a moral obligation to the students."
There’s no legal requirement to provide any audio induction loops yet, says accessibility expert Willem Jagersma from PBTconsult, a consultancy firm specialising in accessibility. However, the 2018 Integral Accessibility Standard contains recommendations for universities.
For people with partial hearing, it says that large lecture halls should have an audio induction loop. Jagersma reports that the universities in Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Utrecht, Groningen, Amsterdam and Tilburg have promised to meet that requirement. "Leiden is one of the few that hasn’t yet promised anything."
In the meantime, 2020, the year in which the ambitions in the Letter of Intent must be met, is not far away. "We’re worried the university won’t manage", says Borst. "I don’t think there’s much time left, so we’re relying on the Executive Board to be more pro-active."