St Hilda’s new residences in central Oxford will greatly benefit students with reduced energy levels or disabilities that limit their ability to walk longer distances.

3rd November 2022

Professor Lorna Smith, the College’s Disability Fellow, is delighted by the purchases of the two properties, St Giles’ and Norham Gardens. 

The headline story for the College is that it can now offer accommodation for undergraduate students for the full period of their degree, but there is more good news for a section of students who might otherwise struggle to complete their studies. 

Those who find it hard to walk longer distances will now be able to stay near to the University’s science and humanities areas where they attend most of their lectures. 

“It is a great addition to our portfolio,” says Lorna.  

Challenging times 

Students in wheelchairs are already well catered for by the excellent disabled access rooms in the recently opened Anniversary Building on the College’s main site. Most have electric wheelchairs and can get between places in Oxford relatively easily. 

But a group suffering from conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome who are unable to walk longer distances have been in a difficult position until now.  

“They could probably get to a lecture and then to the College but they couldn’t do it twice a day and would have to rest afterwards,” explains Lorna. 

Because buses don’t go through the city from St Hilda’s main site to the humanities and science areas (or the attractions of the city centre), previously the only option was to use taxis.  

This has also been the reality for people with some sight difficulties that make it impossible to ride a bike, for example, or who are just less physically robust than most other students. There are also students dealing with long Covid.  

“We have had students who have left College and not completed their degrees because they couldn’t cope,” says Lorna. “It worried me how we were going to solve it.” 

Some departments have rest areas but fewer do so since Covid, and studying off site can be a challenge for many students with disabilities who instead have their rooms set up to compensate, for example with extra lighting or accessibility settings on their PCs set to their preferences. 

Lorna points out: “Now that we have online admissions, people could find themselves in a situation where they had imagined a certain kind of set up and had a big shock when they arrived here and found it wasn’t what they imagined.” 

She adds: “In the past, we have tried to find alternative accommodation with another College for people in this situation, or the students have had to go into private accommodation. It’s been a big gap in our residential offering.” 

Game changer 

With the acquisition of the two new residences, the problem is largely solved. 

“When I heard the news, I thought this is exactly what we need,” recalls Lorna. “If students are working in the science area of the University, they can nip home to St Giles’ between lectures, and the same is the case for students working in the humanities area if they are staying at Norham Gardens. It will be a game changer for those students.” 

Because we can now offer accommodation to students in these circumstances, it will translate into more admissions. 

The University’s Disability Advisory Service told Lorna it was a great step forward for the College. 

The world opened 

Lorna has been a Professor of Chemistry at St Hilda’s for 20 years and Disability Fellow for the last ten. Much has changed. 

“When I started, there were not many students with serious disabilities,” recalls Lorna. “As access has improved in schools, it has filtered through to universities. We now see more and more students with wheelchairs.” 

She is pleased to see how the College has responded with excellent disabled access rooms on the main site in the recently opened Anniversary Building that meet the latest, strict specifications. Automatic doors and a new wheelchair-friendly library entrance under construction are more examples. 

“It is exciting to see how the world has opened up to people with disabilities and the changes that has prompted the College to make,” she says. 

Lorna recalls one student who developed a serious illness in her first year: “It didn’t look like she was going to get through the course but she did and has gone on to a really good job in the civil service. Students reach their potential if right changes are made.” 

Sadly, many more students are now asking for help with depression. It is unclear whether that is because depression is more prevalent in the young population or because people are more willing to talk about it or a combination of both.  

Whatever the reasons, Lorna realises that there are immense challenges faced by students with depression and mental health illnesses such as bipolar and schizophrenia, which both typically present around the age that young people are thinking about university.  

 “How difficult must it be if you get a mental health disability when you’re starting university?” she wonders. “Imagine sitting in the library on your own with just your own thoughts for company.”  

Clearly, being Disability Fellow has enormous challenges, but Lorna says: “It is the most satisfying role. Students with disabilities are normally so appreciative, but they are also an inspiration. They never normally complain about their limits.”