‘Such a tiring process’: the years-long struggle for a handicap room on campus

USyd remains the only university within the Group of Eight (Go8) that does not have a special social space for students with disabilities. This is in stark contrast to the ANU’s Spoon Space, UQ’s Disabilities Space, and UWA’s Access Department room. Outside of the Go8, Wollongong University invested in a multi-sensory space designed with the disabled community in mind. These spaces not only provide a central meeting place, but also provide a break from the hustle and bustle of university life.

The obstacles to the Disabilities space were twofold, as the USyd’s Disabilities Collective (DisCo) threw hurdles through the USU and the USyd in an uphill battle against an unyielding college bureaucracy.

Ping pong with the USU

Some of the first efforts to secure a space for DisCo date back to the efforts of Noa Zulman, Margot Beavon-Collins and Robin Eames in 2017, the 2018 and 2020-21 SRC Disabilities Officers, respectively.

The trio spoke of their frustrations at the USU’s lack of interest, with Beavon-Collins noting that the organization initially cooperated with the Collective’s demand in 2018 given the relocation of the old Queerspace from the Holme Building to Manning that year.

“It was all in the USU spaces where identity spaces were managed. We knew the Queerspace was moving,” says Beavon-Collins.

Here understands that in late 2018, the USU has expressed informal support for DisCo to move to the old Queerspace near the Cellar Theater.

These discussions took place with USU board members and USU staff from the Facilities Department who chair infrastructure management.

According to Beavon-Collins, the USU soon showed a sense of disinterest, leaving the Collective in limbo until DisCo was caught off guard by the USU informing them that the space had been denied, citing a need for excessive storage.

“that space” [the original Queerspace in Holme] to this day it is only used for storing chairs. They said, Oh, it’s super important that we have a space to store all these chairs.”

“Ultimately it goes through the SRC, through the university, not through the USU,” she explains. To her, the USU represented an overly bureaucratic body separate from student activism. Beavon-Collins’ vision is one that haunts the USU, with its mixed records after 2020 staff cuts and lack of transparency, leading critics to argue that the organization owes more to industry stakeholders than to student well-being. .

“I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of ​​letting this corporate entity, which is in every way separate from the university, manage the space. The university should offer that space.”

Excess seat storage in the old Queerspace in the Holme Building.

Progress was finally made in 2019 when the USU board passed a motion to support a disability space, crediting former board members Adam Torres and Maya Easwaran for helping build and whip up consensus for the motion. Here understands that no action has been taken by the USU Facilities Department in the years since the motion.

Similar obstacles were experienced by former USyd student and 2018 SRC Disabilities Officer Noa Zulman. In 2020, Zulman approached current USU Vice President Ruby Lotz to assist with DisCo’s request, given her extensive involvement and institutional knowledge of the project. Initially, Zulman received a warm welcome and great interest from Lotz.

This fell by the wayside, however, as COVID-19 continued to dominate the USU’s agenda into the second half of 2020, after its initial shutdown in NSW.

“They really seemed to be on board. But then after that meeting. She just didn’t react very quickly,” Zulman said of the difficulties she encountered when trying to put the proposal on the student council’s agenda. Compared to Beavon-Collins, Zulman is more optimistic about the USU’s ability to make positive change in student life.

“I think during the pandemic, during the lockdown or just after, I don’t think it was the priority of the organization.”

In response, Lotz said that after the 2020 discussion, the USU gave the Disabilities Officers a tour of potential spaces.

A perennial problem for Zulman is that USU board members often make “big promises” when they take office, but are rarely able to deliver “to a large extent.” Once board members leave after their two-year term, only a “little bit” of institutional knowledge is passed on, leading to a vicious cycle of long-term noncommitment in projects such as the disability area.

Mismatched expectations meant that DisCo soon invested more energy in talks with the SRC and the university after the 2018 tribulation, while still in talks with the USU. What followed, however, was a well-known pattern of administrative disinterest that encompasses the struggles facing disability advocacy on campus.

‘You just get this brick wall’: administrative cat-and-mouse with USyd

At the college level, Beavon-Collins and Robin Eames encountered a host of problems as they continued to lobby for the disability space. One of the most problematic is the instability of USyd’s Byzantine administrative apparatus. Beavon-Collins explains that a combination of frugality and internal “shuffling” meant that staff turnover was high, forcing DisCo to litigate the space proposal every time.

“You’d get halfway through a conversation and it would start to look very, very promising,” recalls Beavon-Collins, stating that USyd’s Disability Services agreed with the Collective on the need for an autonomous space.

“We had a very big meeting that we planned and had. We had a whole list of things we needed. It was going to happen. And then, suddenly out of nowhere, it turned into radio silence.”

Eames agrees, saying that things were constantly “bounced back and forth”, forcing them to “start from scratch” each time. At each turn, USyd passed responsibility on to the next temporary worker and took little co-leadership or interest in the project from DisCo, despite touting the disability inclusion action plan for 2019-24.

In June 2021, Gemma Lucy Smart, a former SUPRA Disabilities Equity Officer, filed an SSAF application for a disability room under the name of SUPRA. In reality, this is a joint effort of the SRC, SUPRA and the USU, aimed at increasing the success of the proposal.

The university told Here that the joint application has been in limbo since June 2021 due to the complexity of COVID-19, but the university expects to “confirm an outcome very soon”. They further explained that the space being considered for renovation by the university is located in the Manning Building.

USyd confirmed that former SRC Disabilities Officers Wilson Huang and Hayden Moon also requested a disabled space in 2019. However, the university did not elaborate on why DisCo’s request was not granted.

According to Eames and Smart, these failures are characteristic of a university that is much more interested in symbolic gestures than in implementing substantive changes. Eames described their consultations with USyd’s management as an exercise to “beat themselves on the back”. This extends to plans for more “tactile routes” around the Camperdown/Darlington campus, which were never delivered and remain a broken promise.

“The problem is that they [the University] wants you to sit at the table because it makes them look good. But if they really have to do something, it’s very difficult for them,” says Smart.

“If you really try to change someone, or get someone to do something, you get a brick wall.”

Why Disability Areas and Advocacy Matter

Smart and Zulman point out the unique challenges that DisCo faces as a collective of disabled students, who have to deal with all kinds of access problems from their environment. An autonomous disabled room thus offers a restful space in which the Collective can be enabled to plan its activism.

“The burden of work for an advocate is, in fact, proportionally greater than for other student lawyers,” Smart said of the challenges disability activism faces on campus.

They argue that these challenges reinforce the case for an autonomous disability space. Zulman, for example, argues that the 3,600 students at USyd who reported disabilities is an underestimate of the true number of students who belong to the community with disabilities, given the prevalence of invisible disabilities and mental health problems.

According to People With Disabilities Australia (PWDA), invisible disabilities include everything from intellectual disabilities to learning disabilities and chronic health conditions.

“Organizations should not underestimate the number of people with disabilities, mental health or invisible disorders on campus. We know that statistically one in five people in Australia has a disability or mental illness,” explains Zulman.

Zulman argues that part of DisCo’s struggles stem from an outdated medical understanding of disability limited to a “small number” of physical disabilities that are deeply entrenched in college.

“The disabled area is not just for a few. I think it’s valuable for students with everything from anxiety, to depression, or chronic fatigue, who need a place to rest on campus.”

This sentiment is shared by current SRC Disabilities Officers Holly Zhang, Sarah Korte and Ira Patole, who emphasized that the space is not only a platform for activism, but also an opportunity for meaningful conversations and a community that USyd misses very much.

“Casual social interactions in an accessible physical space provide a rare opportunity for social inclusion as opposed to Australian housing, education and workplaces which do not affirm the dignity of disabled students,” they said. Here

“It provides a space for students to meet entry needs. Whether it is the private administration of medicines or a break from sensory overload. Space is essential and currently the university does not provide space for students to meet essential entry needs so that they can complete their studies.”

Despite the struggles they have endured, DisCo is adamant and confident that they will continue to defend the rights of disabled students and hold the university accountable.

Again, success seems within reach as the university is to announce the outcome of SUPRA, the SRC and the USU’s proposal for a space in the near future. Should the proposal succeed, it will be a small victory for DisCo as part of a broader, ongoing battle for curriculum design and campus accessibility reforms.

Should the university fail to keep to the agreement, then for Smart, the students should prepare for a protest march against the university administration, as this would amount to a flagrant breach of trust with the community.

“This is the only one we [SUPRA] know that there are several student associations asking for the same thing. If it was eventually rejected, I would be very surprised. I’d say that would be a reason to be angry, very angry,” Smart said.

Echoing the age-old political adage, “Nothing about us, without us,” the Disabilities Collective looks forward to continuing the fight for justice for the disabled on campus and beyond the perimeters of the Quad.

“The university can no longer rely on symbolic gestures and must immediately approve funding for the space if it is to restore its relationship with disabled students.”

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