My name is Tom Fletcher and I am a full degree master’s student at University of Copenhagen. I am in my second year and study English Literature. I love Copenhagen, but I would like in this blog post to discuss my experience of access as a disabled student.
Copenhagen is a lovely city with a great culture, picturesque views and exciting people to get to know. However, have you ever wondered what it is like to live away from home as a disabled student? Hopefully by reading about my experience, it can improve your understanding of issues concerning disability and lead to debate on how the wonderful experience of exchange living can be improved for the next rounds of students with disabilities.
The Copenhagen I love is by and large a very accessible city. It has a flat topography (which makes a difference when pushing around in a wheelchair with no large hills in sight) and good transport systems, such as the S-tog which can aid moving from a to b. However, the buses can be difficult to manage and the regional trains are not always easy to negotiate due to internal train steps.
But accessibility for exchange is not confined to city transport and inner city building access, important as these issues are. It is difficult when some restaurants and bars have a flight of stairs because they are very old but these are not the only issues a disabled student will face.
One of the hardest processes to navigate before experiencing the lovely city is finding somewhere to live. Finding a student accommodation is hard for any student let alone someone with a disability. You have to either know someone who is offering a room to rent, or stay on a waiting list for at least a year in order to get an elusive let. I did want to document my experience to offer a perspective on living with disabilities abroad.
I arrived in Copenhagen in September 2015 and was very lucky to secure a nearby place to stay at Tietgenkollegiet, which was right next to my university department. Living there made all the difference, as I did not have to be tired out by travelling to university which made all the difference to my level of attainment during classes and the ease which I could participate in university life. I was given a 12 month contract which ended in July this year and had to find somewhere else to live.
Initially, I was offered accommodation at Bispebjerg and Tranehavegård-kollegiet, but they were too far away and would have involved a hour pushing to university and back every day. Having to complete this would have exhausted me and put a greater pressure on my academic performance as I would have had to travel very far daily to attend classes and access libraries.
I applied to Tietgen to be put on the waiting list for a room, but found out the Recommendation Committee (Indstillingsudvalget – ISU) did not set out parameters for judging applications and did not recognize disability as grounds for prioritization. So I had to submit an application and hope for the best. The selection process is outlined here and the important quotation is below:
Since each member of the ISU draws on his or her own experiences and beliefs, the evaluations are obviously subjective and thus it is not possible to define exactly what makes up “a good application”.
However even though my application was rejected, all hope was not lost as I discovered a new Kollegium called Bikuben right next to my department, which did allow disability to be considered as a factor in whether an applicant got considered for a room. After explaining my situation and that I was desperate to find somewhere nearby to live, I was considered a successful candidate and have now been able to secure a room for the rest of a degree.
My recommendations are driven by the idea that it is important for both the university and private housing kollegiums to do all they can to accommodate the needs of disabled students by considering disability a factor in the housing process. Our needs are complex, and the ability to live in accessible housing as close to university as possible is crucial to our ability to study and live abroad. There should always be clear parameters regarding how accommodation is decided, and disability considered as a factor in deciding placements of students. I am not asking for disabled students to be given an unfair advantage – I still spent a year on the Bikuben housing list before getting a room- but would like within reasonable adjustments for disability to be included in the processing of room applications.
I believe disability is a social and not just a personal issue, and by changing the systems that govern university life, we can create an inclusive environment that supports everyone, even those with the most complex needs. I disagree with labelling of disability solely as a ‘personal problem’. This is a flawed approach that puts all the emphasis on disabled students having to cope themselves with their disability and does not lead university accepting its social responsibility to do all it can to help disabled students with needs, including housing. The university is in charge of housing and budgets that can have a great impact on the ability of disabled students to come to Copenhagen to study. I hope the university will reconsider its statement below and instead work with disabled students to address the complex issues regarding housing in the years to come.
“Being disabled in Denmark is considered a matter in the personal “sphere” and therefore it is not the universities or housing organizations which can provide any particular assistance to disabled tenants. It is up to the tenant themselves. Some applicants may come from countries where they are used to there being a disability office which can advise and assist in the applicant’s needs also when it comes to every day matters. This will not be the case in Denmark, and therefore, it places a lot of effort on the applicant and requires a very independent person for it to be a positive experience.” (Housing Foundation, 2015)
This position is unacceptable and untenable.