Keys, thresholds and corridors: seeing the university from a wheelchair

How is the physical accessibility of Utrecht University? Can you easily access a building if, for an example, you are in a wheelchair? Corporate Real Estate & Campus Asset Manager Jan-Willem Moerkerk and Humanities PhD Candidate Maranke Wieringa tell us more about this.

Maranke Wieiringa en Jan-Willem Moerkerk
Maranke Wieringa (photo: Ivar Pel) and Jan-Willem Moerkerk (photo: Kees Gort)

Maranke Wieringa does PhD research into algorithmic systems at Dutch municipalities. They have a connective-tissue disorder and use a wheelchair for that reason. They occasionally run into obstacles at the university. As an asset manager, Jan-Willem Moerkerk's job is to ensure that the university is accessible to everyone, including staff members and students with disabilities. 

Maranke, do you experience the university as accessible?

No. There is still a world to gain. Moving around in a wheelchair within the university is not yet as obvious as when you're walking. For an example, the front door of the office building I work at is so heavy that I can't open it by myself from the wheelchair. An automatic door should currently be in the works. Another example: you have to ask for a key to a plateau elevator in order to enter a building to teach there. You have to go to a porter first, who then checks whether or not you are actually disabled enough to be allowed to borrow the key. These kinds of things make it a lot more difficult to move around on campus as carefree as everyone else. In some cases, it's even tricky to find out where you're supposed to be in the first place. The building information that is available online has somewhat improved the situation. This at least lets you see things like whether or not there is another entrance in a building. But if you're at a location, like the stairs of Janskerkhof 3, there's no sign saying: ‘If you're in a wheelchair: this way, please.’ In that regard, you're sometimes still left on your own.

In the past, platform Studying without Limitations has examined all buildings for obstacles if you want to enter with a wheelchair. Jan-Willem, what's been done with the results of this user test?

We are modifying buildings in phases. The investment costs for Phase 1 of the project to improve physical access cover constructional modifications in ten education buildings and eight research buildings, and add up to approximately 1.6 million euros. This investment has since been approved by the Executive Board. We will start in the inner city with publicly accessible buildings, in order to help the most people. Such as a library where people come and go all the time, and where people are most likely to run into problems unexpectedly. We're going to start with the inner city because the problems are the biggest there, because of the monumental buildings. Within the project, the obstacles in Parnassos have since been addressed.

We will start in the inner city with publicly accessible buildings, in order to help the most people.

Maranke Wieiringa en Jan-Willem Moerkerk
Jan-Willem Moerkerk

In the past years, in advance of the project, modifications to improve accessibility have already been made in many different places. Some examples are wheelchair spaces having been realised in the lecture halls, the ground of the International Campus Utrecht having been addressed, and many buildings having been fitted with markings for stairs and windows. We also made modifications to the Minneart building, the Koningsberger building and the Buys Ballot building in Utrecht Science Park. Before that, you couldn't enter the Minneart building with your wheelchair on your own and the education rooms could also not be accessed independently. The doors have been modified now, to make this possible.

What more do you think the university can do to improve the physical accessibility of its buildings?

Maranke: I think that much can be done with a little creativity and some concessions. The user test of Studying without Limitations was insufficient to me as a lecturer because it only looked if you can enter a room or building, but not where you can go there. Being able to sit in the back of a lecture hall may be okay for a student, but I have to get to my whiteboard when I'm teaching. It's handy to list this too so schedulers also know which rooms in a building are well accessible, so I don't have to inform my scheduler about this separately. So it's not about big modifications, just about things that make life a lot easier.

I think that much can be done with a little creativity and some concessions.

PhD student Maranke Wieringa
Maranke Wieringa

Jan Willem: I recognise that. The process is interactive. In the Studying without Limitations survey, the students have gone through the entire building and paid close attention to accessibility in all kinds of aspects. But indeed, the situation you describe is correct. The platform didn't structurally examine the accessibility of all education rooms in the aspect that is also essential to you as a lecturer in practice. Specifically the accessibility at the front of the rooms next to the whiteboards. It's good that you, Maranke, address it, so we can work on a solution for this too.

If new buildings are bought or constructed, is the accessibility of the building assessed in advance?

Jan-Willem: In order to secure accessibility during the development of our new buildings, we use standards. Back when we received the accessibility issue, we quite quickly discovered that laws, regulations and the Dutch Building Decree provide far too few frameworks to make a well-accessible building. If you're in compliance with the Dutch Building Decree, you can very well make a building that's completely inaccessible. So that means you have to take an additional step for this purpose. And you have to look for starting points for an assessed methodology in order to actually arrive at accessible buildings. Back then, we quickly met with a bureau that makes the integral accessibility standard. We then made that standard specific to education and UU. While doing so, we saw that there's much attention for mobility access and visual accessibility. But there's fewer attention for auditive accessibility and actually no attention at all for people with psychological disabilities. You see that this field is still in development and we're therefore still expanding our standards further.

Do the two of you have any further suggestions on what the university can do in order for people with disabilities to feel more welcome?

Maranke: I think it's very important to consider people with disabilities when drafting a new policy or a new building design. I'm currently working with a group of people to set up an interuniversity network for university students and staff members with disabilities. We want to unite the group of students and staff members, because many problems we run into are the same. On 3 December 2021, we launched the network Accessible Academia. With the network, we want to ask for attention for the obstacles that disabled academics and students at universities still run into too often, and provide space to discuss these experiences in. Besides that, we take a stand for the improvement of disabled university staff members and students' positions.

By inclusion correspondent Myra-Lot Perrenet

Watch also the video with Maranke