‘It feels like we’re a problem’: Disabled London students on exclusion during Freshers’

A student described the fair as ‘the worst day I’ve ever spent on campus’


The Freshers’ Fair and Welcome Period are supposed to invite students to experience and be welcomed into their campus communities. But it turns out that they can achieve the exact opposite without the necessary considerations to include everyone.

A survey by Student Beans found that students with disabilities are more than twice as likely as those without disabilities to feel like nobody cares about them during Freshers’ Week, and a quarter of disabled students reported feeling isolated and lonely during this time.

And this population is far from small since about one in five people has a disability in the UK.

The London Tab spoke to two disabled students to understand more about what has gone wrong during Freshers’ at their unis.

Horizontal photo showing frontal view of UCL's Portico with seven banners spelling out the word "welcome."

‘There was absolutely no way they could have been able to get in’

Taylor*, who held a stall for a member society of the KCL Disabled Students’ Network at the Students’ Union’s Welcome Fair, said many disabled students found “there was absolutely no way they would have been able to get in.”

For example, commuting with taxis is necessary for many students due to their conditions, but there were no easy locations to park around the fair for drop off and pick up.

Taylor also described the experience of a friend who, when they arrived at the accessible entrance, was met with security guards who didn’t even know what that meant. But the alternative was an entrance with an “absolutely massive queue that is completely inaccessible to people with a massive range of conditions,” so their friend had to confront the staff.

Taylor said: “My friend told the security staff that the SU designated an accessible entrance at this side of the building for people with disabilities.

“Then the guard just looked them up and down, clearly thinking that they ‘don’t look very disabled.’

“Meanwhile, my friend felt like everyone in the massive queue was giving them looks because it looked like they were trying to skip the queue. So they had to tell the security and KCLSU staff they had a mobility impairment because this was clearly the only way they could be let in without having to explain their needs.”

Taylor found it “ridiculous” that someone “practically had to act out a limp to provide a visible impairment” because “people shouldn’t be judged by using the accessible entrance, and everyone should know that not all disabilities are visible.”

“It was incredibly upsetting that no one seemed to take accessibility seriously. They don’t seem to understand for some people travelling is extremely difficult. And even if these people managed to get here, they would have to go home if they cannot get in,” they said.

Disabled students at KCL ended up printing out and putting up their own signs for the accessible entrance as the organisers didn’t (Credit: KCL NDMH Society on Instagram)

‘It was probably the worst day I’ve ever spent on campus’

Even if they managed to enter, many disabled students found themselves within intolerably inaccessible environments.

Philip, who ran the stall for UCL Autism Society, recalled the Welcome Fair as “the worst day I’ve ever spent on campus.”

First, he thought the stall given was way too overwhelming for current and prospective members of the society, “who are disproportionately autistic and have sensory needs.”

He said: “The SU promised to give us a place where we could interact with prospective members in the best environment possible.

“They didn’t provide that for us this year, even though there were areas I saw when I walked around the fair a bit that would have been wonderful for us.

“They either lied to us or just completely forgot. I think both are unacceptable and are symptomatic of far greater problems.”

Aside from the environment, Philip also found the attitude he was met with very distressing, considering it was the first time he was “openly and publicly autistic.”

“The entire day, I watched people come by and laugh at us after looking up at our sign, sometimes even pointing us out to their friends so they could laugh at us too. It was awful.

“I remember at one point a Students’ Union UCL sabbatical officer came around and asked every single table around us how we were doing and if we needed anything. He would even wait in line at some of them just to make sure he had reached every single one.

“He came up to ours, looked at what we were, and immediately moved on. It was a bit shocking.”

And it was upsetting as well since being at the fair was very important to Philip. He thought his presence as the president would help “bring as many autistic students as possible into the society,” which is “a warm and welcoming community of people who truly understand one another” for him.

UCL Autism Society’s stall at the Welcome Fair was assigned alphabetically at the entrance despite the SU promising to arrange a quieter and darker space (Credit: UCL Autism Society on Instagram)

Taylor experienced similar issues visiting the KCL Neurodiversity and Mental Health Society stall, which they found “incredibly loud and very, very overwhelming” since it was near a speaker.

And while they were aware of being sent messages from disabled students asking for help to get in and navigate through the sensory challenges, they were often unable to respond since there was no internet or data connection at the fair.

This is problematic because disabled students might need to contact someone for various reasons, like seizures or sensory overload. A similar issue was at the accessible toilets, where no pull cords were available in case of emergencies.

But even though organisers failed to accommodate all these needs, Taylor found it “a bit tokenistic” that they were particularly keen to adjust for the president of the KCL Disabled Students Society.

“They knew the president because she’s done a lot of activism. She’s done campaigns, and she’d been in the news. And they literally watched out the window to see when she was coming in on her wheelchair. And when they saw her, they went down there and showed her the way.

“It’s absolutely great that they were prepared for one specific disabled student and that she didn’t face the same barriers to entering the fair. However, this isn’t how reasonable adjustments are supposed to work, and certainly not how anticipatory adjustments work. 

“You can’t just assume that only one person needs these things because they’re outspoken, and you know they’re attending on a certain day. You also shouldn’t think your job is done after getting the one person you know into the building,” they said.

Naomi, the president of KCL Disabled Students Society, was featured on BBC for her campaign for accessibility at the uni (Credit: KCL Disabled Students Society on Instagram)

‘Accessibility is not something that is optional’

Philip thought his opinion of the SU “was quite damaged after that day.”

“I knew that UCL and the UCL Students union have both had issues appropriately dealing with the needs of disabled students, but going through it first-hand was a jarring experience.”

Taylor agreed with him. They were initially “really happy” the KCLSU promised to meet their demands, like a designated period with less noise and crowd for disabled students and a statement about accommodations they would make. “But when those promises weren’t followed through or done properly, I regretted that I even had faith in them.”

Taylor said many students couldn’t visit their stall despite wanting to due to accessibility barriers (Credit: KCL NDMH Society on Instagram)

They thought accessibility issues during the Welcome Period, which this article does nothing to cover, is “something that has a serious impact on the university’s reputation, as disabled students talk to other disabled students, who might be prospective students, about their experiences as well.”

“With things the way they are right now, it feels like we’re just a problem. Like we are just the ‘problem students’ to whom they’ll just promise things they’ll never do while thinking, ‘oh, they’re such a pain.’

“The slogan for this year’s KCLSU Welcome Fair is ‘You belong here.’ It didn’t feel like we belonged there in any way whatsoever. And it felt like we were actively not wanted because we were a pain in everyone’s ass.

“That’s honestly how it feels, and it’s really upsetting.

“But accessibility needs to be their priority. They need to put money into it. They need to employ staff about it. They need to treat it like it’s not an afterthought that disabled students themselves have to put all this labour into for them to even think about. We should not have to harangue them with emails to get them to agree on things they won’t even follow through.

“They need to start thinking through decisions while understanding the impact they have on people, and understanding that accessibility is not just the need of a couple of annoying students who keep on pestering them but will eventually graduate and get out their hair.”

“Yes, they might have to do a little bit more work, but it is not optional. Accessibility is not something they have to do to please people but something they are obliged to do.

“It’s 2022, and they’re still expecting disabled students to do the leg work like sticking up signs at the accessible entrance or educating them.

“This is totally outrageous. And you know, it’s not a good look.”

*name changed to preserve anonymity

In response to Philip’s comments, a Students’ Union UCL spokesperson said: “We are deeply sorry for the experience of Philip at this year’s Welcome Fair.

“Philip raises concerning feedback about the attitude of some attendees towards the Autism Society. We take these comments extremely seriously and will be investigating this urgently with the society.

“We have worked hard to make the Welcome Fair an accessible and welcoming event. Over the past few years we have:

  • Introduced event ticketing which has limited the number of visitors attending the event per hour and the overall number attending each day, ensuring that at no point the event is excessively busy.
  • Reduced the number of stallholders present at the event by a third since 2019, giving each stallholder more space to meet and talk to students.
  • Ensured a clear one-way system exists at the event to avoid overcrowding in any one area due to two-way traffic.
  • Doubled the number of stewards present at the event, to ensure visitors are supported whilst on campus.
  • Created a simple way for students to raise accessibility requirements when booking a ticket, indicating their specific needs. Our team are then able to support students as they arrive.
  • Significantly expanded our support for our events programme and encouraged clubs and societies to host events before the Welcome Fair. This reduces the pressure on students to attend the event in order to meet and join student-led groups and enables societies to host events in an environment which meet their needs.
  • Introduced an event code of conduct shown when booking any ticket, this makes clear our zero-tolerance policy on harassment of any form.

“The way we run the event also allows us to quickly make changes to the arrangement and layout of the stallholders to find suitable spaces depending on needs. The UCL Autism Society were located in a place we felt met the requirements they raised with us in advance, and we would have happily relocated them on the day to a more suitable location.

“We are continuously improving our Welcome Fair event and will always take feedback into our planning considerations for future.”

A KCLSU spokesperson responded to Taylor’s comment: “KCLSU is committed to providing universal access to all our events, including our Welcome Fair.

“We are aware that some of our students had accessibility issues at this year’s Fair and apologise for this. We have shared this feedback and concerns with the venue and will work with the venue management, accessibility specialists as well as consult relevant student groups, to ensure the Fair is fully accessible in the future and that suitable support is in place for all our students visiting the event.”

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