The Northern Regional College in Newtownabbey has apologised and agreed to pay £1000 to a disabled Larne student after broken lifts prevented her from attending classes.
Claire Taggart suffers from Functional Dystonia, a condition which causes the muscles in her body to contract and forces them into fixed abnormal positions.
The 20-year-old Animal Management student uses a wheelchair and depended on the college’s lifts to access classrooms.
However, after being rescued by fire fighters when she got stuck in the college lift, Claire decided to take a disability discrimination case against the college with the assistance of the Equality Commission.
Claire commented: “Making sure someone like me can actually get to my classes is the most basic requirement when it comes to providing equal access for disabled students.
“I had on occasion to make my way up and down stairs on my bottom while other students carried my wheel chair for me.”
“As I now need a powered wheelchair, this is no longer possible. I was even told to go home because the lifts were not working.”
In May 2014, Claire, who is a member of Team GB’s Boccia Squad and is looking forward to competing in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, got stuck in a college lift and had to be rescued by the Fire Service.
“This brought matters to a head for me,” she explained.
“I had some access difficulties in the past, but I never had to be rescued by a fireman before.”
After Claire brought her disability discrimination case the college apologised to her, made a payment of £1,000, and affirmed its commitment to equality of opportunity.
It has also taken specific measures, which were agreed with Claire, to deal with problems affecting the lifts.
“I’m pleased that, as a result of my complaints, the college has taken measures to deal with the problems I encountered,” Claire continued.
“One of the messages I’d like to get across is that a lift that doesn’t work can wreck a disabled person’s day – so please take care of the lifts!”
The Northern Regional College has released a statement apologising to Claire and expressing regret at the “unacceptable difficulties” she experienced in accessing lift services at its Newtownabbey campus.
An NRC spokesperson said: “We regret that one of our former students experienced circumstances whilst studying in Newtownabbey in 2014 that fell short of our normal standards of access.
“We aim to promote equality of opportunity in all of the College’s activities, and to ensure that we provide a supportive, fair, inclusive and welcoming environment for all staff, students and visitors free from any form of discrimination or harassment.
“In the time since this incident we have carried out an upgrade to a number of lifts and continue to ensure that all lifts are serviced on a monthly basis. We have also improved CCTV coverage on site.
“We are continuing our ongoing awareness-raising amongst students of the needs of disabled students and delivery of mandatory staff training to promote disability awareness and equality. The College is also in the process of rolling out a compulsory online course for staff focused on Safeguarding and Equality & Diversity.”
Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission Michael Wardlow commented: “Education has a unique role to play in tackling all kinds of disadvantage in society, and equality for all – including people with disabilities - should be a core objective for every college or school.
“They need to ensure that students with disabilities have access to the full range of educational facilities and opportunities and see that they are provided with the necessary support to do this. Disabled students with mobility problems shouldn’t be put off going to college, with all it has to offer them, just because the lifts don’t work.”
“Every year the Commission gets more complaints about disability than about any other sort of discrimination. The most common cause of complaint regarding access to education is the failure of institutions to make a reasonable adjustment so that a disabled person is not placed at a disadvantage in comparison with other students.”
“Disability discrimination is a continuing problem and we maintain our focus on addressing it. We’ll be supporting the 2016 UK-wide Disabled Access Day (12 March) with an event in Belfast on 10 March. It’s part of our ‘Every Customer Counts’ initiative, which helps businesses and service providers understand what is required of them under the law and how they can improve access for disabled people.”