The new Blavatnik School of Government building has been widely lauded for everything from its environmental credentials to its innovative design. However, the building also breaks ground in a way that is too-often forgotten: it is one of the most physical disability-friendly structures in Oxford.
The revolutionary inclusiveness of the building has made an unimaginable difference to me as a wheelchair user. I walk (or, roll, really) into the building and feel like I’m supposed to be there—not like I’m some disabled outsider who the powers-that-be never imagined would make it this far.
The rest of Oxford is not so welcoming. The Equality Act 2010 is the latest anti-discrimination law in the UK, mandating that reasonable adjustments be made to facilitate disabled people’s access to all spheres of life, including higher education. Despite these laws, countless places in the United Kingdom are still flagrantly and unashamedly inaccessible to disabled people, especially in Oxford. Hundreds of buildings in this ancient town are listed as historically significant, and therefore any alternations to them—even to comply with anti-discrimination mandates—require special approval. But, for wheelchair users like me, all the dreaming spires can only be so magnificent when the buildings they are perched on celebrate architecture that has excluded disabled people for centuries.
The new BSG building sets a new standard for the university. Firstly, every room in the building is accessible via a wheelchair, which is a radical notion in and of itself for Oxford. Wheelchair users can also use the same entrance as everyone else and aren’t sidelined to some hidden “disabled people only” door. Special attention has been paid to nearly every detail: the heights of the tables and couches, the locations of the power outlets, the height of the coat hooks, the type of bins in the toilets, the locations of the automatic door buttons, and more. These are all features that may seem trivial to the able-bodied, but when forgotten, can create an exhausting, wildly segregating and unwelcoming experience for disabled people who have to fight hundreds of little battles with these “minor inconveniences” every day.
Most importantly, the accessibility of the new building helps foster a truly inclusive and welcoming community among the students. In the first few weeks of my MPP programme, before the School moved into the new premises, we held our classes in old buildings that I could only access via secret, circuitous paths. In every classroom, I only had one option for a desk. I sat in my designated spot and watched my new classmates forge friendships in the casual moments between lectures up the stairs and out of my reach. After class, I left via the disabled exit and went home on my own, while everyone else walked together out of the normal exit, joking and laughing along the way. The built environment of these old lecture theaters kept me physically and therefore socially separated from my classmates, making my transition into the program fundamentally different than everyone else’s just on the basis of my disability.
The second we moved into the new building, I felt the difference. No longer did I have to put in so much extra effort to be around my classmates; the new, accessible space allowed conversation and friendship to flourish organically. My days became less stressful, my work suddenly seemed easier, and I started having a whole lot more fun.
The Blavatnik School of Government was founded to bring people together from all over to solve the world’s most dire and complex government challenges. We are taught in our classes that the best way to solve public policy problems is to consider the perspective of all stakeholders. But the work we do can never be fully beneficial without considering disabled people, who make up 15% of the world’s population, as critical voices in the conversation. With the construction of this new radically inclusive building, BSG boldly makes the statement that disabled people are equally valuable members of our international community. The ethos here has had a profound effect on me personally as a disabled student, but will also undoubtedly have an impact on the whole university and on the governments we serve for years to come.
Lindsay Lee is currently studying for an MPP at the Blavatnik School of Government. She has worked in disability advocacy and data analysis.