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“I shouldn’t have to fight for this”: Roar Interviews Naomi Stenning

Staff writer Lambrini Das interviews Naomi Stenning, a 3rd year Music Student and President of the KCL Disabled Students Society.

Stenning has been campaigning for improved accessibility at King’s. She discusses the process of getting listed building consent, the effect which a lack of accessibility has had on her and how more needs to be done for the disabled community at KCL.

Could you describe the process you went through with KCL to make the university more accessible?

So, it’s very long winded…If we go back to the very beginning, on UCAS, I put in that I had a disability, and then I was contacted by the disability team, which is very, very sparse (which I found out) at King’s. They put in something called KIP, which is a King’s Inclusion Plan and so it’s kind of to try and put in provisions to help but it didn’t actually really help; so basically they give me extensions which is great but that’s about as far as the help goes, and then like when I kind of got sicker and needed to use a wheelchair, I brought it up to them and I was like things aren’t accessible can we please make them accessible and then I basically got passed around from one person to another person and another person and nobody like took responsibility.

Everyone kept saying, “oh that’s someone else’s problem”, or like, “that’s someone else’s responsibility” and then I was just left for ages not knowing who to talk to, like having no one to talk to, and having no idea what was going on and this was all actually during Covid so a lot of them said “because of Covid you’re not coming on to campus so it’s not an issue at the moment” and I was like well it going to be an issue when  I do come back on to campus but they were like “we’ll deal with it then.” And then like kind of I finish first year went into second year and the issues were still all there and Covid was not as big of a problem – well it was still a vey big problem but we were in person a lot more – and I was like well what are you going to do now, and they said I should have told them earlier so that they could do things because it takes time and I said, “well I did tell you earlier but you dismissed me”.

So, then nothing was happening, I tried talking to so many people and was getting nowhere, so then I started the petition which got quite a lot of attention, then people finally started actually talking to me. And people higher up the chain that could actually make some changes started talking to me. But still they were like “it’s a listed building we can’t make changes” and they kept coming up with excuses, basically. So, it was another six months at least before they even put in an application for listed building consent. And I was like if this really was that big of an issue why didn’t they do anything when we first started talking? Then they kept saying, “we can’t do anything unless we get listed building consent”. It was just excuse after excuse, basically.

Do you think that the petition was the turning point to get them to start listening and then they put forward the application for the listed building to have more accessibility?

The petition definitely was a turning point.  I think they were just trying to silence me before, so they couldn’t really ignore it anymore. They couldn’t ignore me anymore. So that started better meetings with people. But it still took them a good six months to submit the listed building consent after I made the petition. It was a lot. I was trying to keep on top of my studies, I was in hospital a lot and then I had to try and talk to all these people about making it accessible and I was like this shouldn’t have to be like this, I shouldn’t have to fight for this when I’m trying to study.

How has the lack of accessibility, and the lack of support from the university affected your ability to feel part of the wider KCL community?

It’s affected it massively. I definitely don’t really feel part of the King’s community, partly because of my disability and partly because I am ill all the time and am in hospital so much so I can’t come in whether it is accessible or not. So, there’s the side that I am housebound some of the time, so that provides problems. But for the times when I could come into uni, it’s definitely problematic because its not accessible so it’s a struggle to go to all my classes and they have to be in specific rooms and then it’s just embarrassing as well because they have desks which are attached to chairs so there’s nowhere for me to sit and write.

It’s difficult to open the doors so it’s embarrassing to get into the room when I’m struggling with the doors and then I can’t go and do things with everyone else. Like they’ll all go to Chapters or something and I can’t always do that because there’s not always a downstairs space and I can’t go upstairs, and, yeah, there’s so many things I can’t access. That does exclude me from a lot. And things like societies, they have to be in specific accessible rooms but I feel like such a problem because I’m like, ‘I want to join your society, but we have to do it in a specific room and they have to take all these steps to try and make it accessible but its not their job either like everything in the uni should just be accessible’.

What kind of effect has this lack of accessibility, with regard to not being able to join societies like you said, not being able to go to social events or classes as easily had on your mental health? And if it has had an effect, have you received any kind of support from the university during this process?

That’s kind of hard to answer, its definitely had an effect because its made me feel quite lonely and isolated. I used to really struggle with my mental health but thankfully I’m in a much better place now. It hasn’t really put me into a bad place or anything, and I’m really fortunate that I’ve learnt coping strategies and techniques to deal with these things. Obviously you can learn these techniques and it doesn’t always help but, yeah, so I’ve been really lucky with knowing how to process my feelings, so my mental health hasn’t struggled too much, thankfully.

I wanted to ask, to what extent do you think having a lack of accessibility has affected your education, because after all, at the end of the day, we’re paying £9000 and above as home students and you want to have a good education which you’re paying for, so has it affected that?

So, that’s something I think about a lot. I’m literally paying nine grand and I can’t access most of the university, it’s just ridiculous. It does really frustrate me because it’s just ridiculous. I should be able to access the same things as everyone else can, we’re all paying the same amount of money.

I actually brought this up briefly when I had a meeting with leadership, and I was like, ‘well I should get like compensation for all you’ve put me through, and you should pay for like a year of my studies or something because it’s ridiculous’, but, yeah, they weren’t too keen on that idea! Even though they have millions of pounds.

That’s the other thing that frustrates me, they have all these excuses, and they have the means to make things accessible and they just don’t want to. They have the money to do it, they have people they can pay to advise them and things like that. They can get people from disability campaigns whose job it is to help with accessibility but instead they put everything on me and then make me feel like I’m burdening them and make me pay nine thousand pounds to not be able to access classes.

So finally, the university is going ahead with the listed building process and getting things going for more accessibility. Do you think the steps they are taking now are going far enough, or is there a lot more that needs to be done?

No, they are not going far enough. So, I am really glad that something is happening and like I kind of said on the BBC interview, I am really pleased that at least something is going ahead. I mean that is a big step forward compared to where we were a year ago. I don’t want to diminish that, and I am really pleased things are happening, but it is definitely nowhere near enough. And even from the start of my campaign, if you want to call it that, I’ve been saying its not just my department [Music] that needs to be accessible, it’s the whole university…The chances of them doing the same course as me are going to be slim. I mean, mine is like one of the smallest cohorts, of all courses, with only like 45 people per year in undergrad so I was like, ‘yeah you need to make the whole uni accessible’.

And I understand that will take time…but they need to at least start doing these steps and actually listen to other disabled people. I keep saying when we have meetings, “you need to get other disabled people in here because I can’t speak for everyone”. Everyone has different needs, even if we’ve got the same disability, we have different needs and access requirements. There are a lot of people it’s inaccessible for. Like if you’re neurodivergent or something, I have no idea what access requirements they’d need, and I don’t want to speak for them because that’s not my place.

So, I keep saying you need to get other people in, but they don’t listen. Or if they do listen, they just ignore me. So yeah, things do need to go further. And like I said, social aspects and stuff, they haven’t made any changes to things like that so they’ve kind of started to make changes so I can go to more of my classes or access more rooms in the department but what about after that? University is so much more than just going to your lessons…like I’ve never been to the Vault, and I’m going into my third year which is kind of crazy!

So overall, what I’m hearing is that there is a lack of support coming from the disability team at King’s?

Actually, the disability team themselves are good and I can’t fault them. They just don’t get listened to either, so they are fighting with me. But everyone else in the uni just ignores them as well. And there’s not much they can actually do; they can help support and they can kind of tell you what help there is and if it’s easy to fix things they can help but they need support from people higher up the chain and from other departments which they just don’t get.

Overall, like you were saying before with students who have different requirements to make their education, learning and overall experience better suited to them, do you think that there’s a lack of having an individualised or a tailored approach to students who may need different accessibility requirements or so on?

It really is like one size does not fit all. Statistically, we [disabled students] are massively in the minority. There was a PowerPoint or something when I did training for my society and it said…people with disabilities was 9% [of the student body], so we are massively in the minority…[but] 9% is still quite a lot, it’s a lot of individuals and they can’t tailor it to every single person, but they can ask people what they actually need and do their best to support them. I think they just say we care about disabled people and they do like one thing or they’ll like send an email out and be like you need to be inclusive and be like “job done”…They need to do more.

Is there anything you would like to say, any final thoughts or a message you’d like to leave?

I started a Disabled Students’ Society so hopefully that will give disabled people the space the need to build a community and just talk to other disabled people and know that they are not alone. Just if there is anyone listening, or watching or reading, who identifies with what I’ve been saying, we’d love to have you, come along to the society.

For those interested in joining the KCL Disabled Students Society, click here.

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