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Edinburgh and Disability: How accessible is the city now that we have “freedom” again?

Writing by Bella Henricks. Illustration by Berenika Murray.

August 2021 saw the vast majority of Covid restrictions lifted in Scotland. We have clubs back, we can go to the pub like we used to, and we can drink irresponsibly in most other public spaces again, just like the good old days. The pandemic posed a significant challenge for everybody, but “Freedom Day” seems to have charged full speed ahead without accounting for many individuals living in Edinburgh with disabilities.

How accessible is “free” Edinburgh for those with physical disability?

Edinburgh transport provides wheelchair access on its Lothian bus services, taxis are, overall, relatively accessible, and areas such as Newtown have been praised by disability blogs and reviews as excellent for those with physical disabilities. However, as anyone who has visited Edinburgh will know, there are hills on hills on top of more hills. On those hills, you will probably find cobblestones. The Royal Mile is one of Edinburgh’s most popular tourist destinations, but it is also an area frequented by Edinburgh locals, and both tourists and locals with physical disabilities seem to have recognised the poor accessibility of the city’s most famous areas. Many areas on and around the Royal Mile are hilly, cobblestoned, and frequently rained on. To make matters worse, many pubs, shops, restaurants, and venues in this area do not have proper disabled access in the form of ramps, low tables, low bars, and bathrooms. I had to turn more than one potential customer away from my former place of work on the Royal Mile because both our entrances had stairs. It is unfortunately the “charm” of an ancient, enigmatic city such as Edinburgh to not provide obvious, less aesthetic entrances and facilities that could ruin its façade. Put simply, people who live in Edinburgh without any physical disability should be mindful that as we enter a new phase of Covid life, there are many in the same city who do not experience freedom in the same way.

How accessible are Universities after “Freedom Day”?

There are over 55,000 university students residing in Edinburgh, and over 33,000 of them attend The University of Edinburgh. Covid saw the university adopt remote learning while charging its standard fees for domestic and international students. Many students were furious that a university boasting world class education, partly by way of compulsory in-person classes, was suddenly costing just as much for lectures, tutorials, labs, seminars, and workshops that the university itself has recognised as sub-standard. To add to the frustration, many neurodivergent students, as well as those with learning, intellectual and mental health disabilities were frustrated that after years of requesting that The University of Edinburgh adopt more remote and flexible learning options, it only changed its model when the entire student body was impacted by the pandemic. In a recent email to The University of Edinburgh’s students, Professor Colm Harmon (VP Students) informed all cohorts that the university would continue with its hybrid learning model in the 2021-22 academic year. While this is welcome and reassuring for many, it begs the question of why the university was unable to adopt these measures sooner. Recorded lectures, for example, are regularly used by universities around the world, while Edinburgh emphatically deemed them as ineffective forms of learning (prior to Covid, of course). When students attend university this September, it’s fundamental that they recognise the changes made to the educational model and ask why calls from disabled and neurodivergent students for the same changes went unheard for so long. The University of Edinburgh and other Scottish universities are now far more accessible than they were a few years ago, but they run the risk of becoming less so as we approach normality, and ironically, ‘freedom’, once again.

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