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  • Writer's pictureThe Gaudie

Delegates ‘Excluded’ From ‘Chaotic’ Student Conference 

Updated: May 4

Lack of BSL interpreters, missing allergen warnings, and inaccessible presentations mar NUS Scotland Conference


By Finn Abou El Magd and Kirsten Koss


Delegates gather at NUS conference in Stirling. Photo Credit: Oshiotse Friday

Frustrated delegates have criticised the National Union of Students (NUS) after multiple requests for accessibility accommodations were allegedly ignored at a recent conference. 


The NUS Scotland conference, a way for students to discuss national policy before voting it into effect, was held from the 27th to 28th of March. 


One anonymous delegate shared that they had asked NUS Scotland for a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter in February and were informed the day before the conference began that there wouldn’t be one available. Another BSL user shared that despite NUS Scotland asking for their access accommodations on March 1, they failed to respond to their subsequent requests.


Speaking to The Gaudie, NUS Scotland President Ellie Gomersall confirmed that conference organisers had been unable to secure a BSL interpreter.


She said: “We contacted every single company basically in the country to see if there were any available. Unfortunately, given the short notice, there weren’t any at that point.

“It is quite costly when it comes to things like BSL interpreters, it is a cost that we’re absolutely willing to spend, because it is so important. But clearly, it just hasn’t worked this time round and that is deeply unfortunate.”


Some delegates excluded from discussions due to lack of interpreters 


The lack of BSL interpretation left hard of hearing delegates bewildered and uninformed.

Holly Pearce, Inverness Depute President (Education) for the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association, would have benefitted from having a BSL interpreter during the conference. Holly, who uses a Roger Pen – a wireless microphone used in combination with hearing aids – was left excluded from discussions when the device stopped working.


She labelled the conference as “chaotic”, adding “a lot of the work we did in groups isn’t accessible.” Ms Pearce said she was dissatisfied with NUS Scotland’s efforts to meet accessibility requirements, noting “there should be a plan A, B, C… [why not] have someone on NUS staff who is an interpreter.” 

Holly also shared that her request for printed materials on pink paper, to assist with dyslexia, went unacknowledged by NUS Scotland.


Another delegate told The Gaudie they were assured alternative mechanisms would be put in place to make the conference accessible without an interpreter. This included asking speakers to face the ‘access table’ and to talk slowly and clearly. 


Despite this, the delegate said that they needed “someone to sit there and tell me what happened” to be fully involved. Ultimately, this delegate was forced to flee to the “quiet room” provided by NUS Scotland.


They told us: “We had to move out of the room because no one could hear.”

Skye Marriner, President of the Edinburgh College Students’ Association, also expressed concerns, commenting that one poorly-formatted policy presentation was not accessible for students.


“Like many things at conference the presentation was not fully thought through with it being bulky and ran through quite quickly,” she noted. “This caused not only a lot of questions but a massive inaccessibility issue.”


Natalie Fisher, ex-President of Welfare and Equality at Fife College Students’ Association, told The Gaudie she had to arrange her own BSL interpreters at two NUS Scotland conferences during her term as student president.


She said: “I wasn’t confident in their organisation to manage the conference and ensure it would be accessible. I heard this year that other delegates didn’t get BSL interpreters and did not get the same experience as everyone else at conference, so I was very disappointed to hear that after I worked with them for two years as a delegate.


“If NUS Scotland still isn’t sure how to properly support deaf delegates, they could always contact me or the deaf organisation for advice. There is no excuse for this.”

Was the venue suitable for delegates?


Additionally, concerns have been raised about the suitability of the conference venue, Stirling Court Hotel. One delegate said that the “carpets in hotels are horrible for wheelchair users.”


​​Rachel Poole, the incoming Vice President Wellbeing of Heriot-Watt Student Union, is a delegate with multiple complex allergies which she feels NUS Scotland and hotel staff failed to adequately support.


“I was promised a Nut Free menu for my safety,” she told us. “This wouldn’t have made the conference entirely safe for me but was definitely a massive start.”

 

“I came in to find no ingredients on the lunch or dinner menus and when explaining that I had multiple complex allergies I was offered an “allergen free dessert” (gluten free option) with the catered dinner which staff noted down. The staff came back to inform me that it had almonds in it – but that was okay because it “wasn’t on the menu”.”

 

Ms Poole notes that while the hotel failed to correctly display allergen information on Day 1 of the conference, this oversight was corrected on Day 2.

 

Rachel told The Gaudie she has concerns about future NUS conferences:


“My trust, safety and autonomy were all compromised, and if my allergies were worse, it could have been my life.”

 

“NUS staff should have been more proactive, and I should not have to fight at their conference to be respected. It’s not good enough.”

 

“As the incoming VP Wellbeing of Heriot-Watt I will be at these conferences next year and I am terrified of what is to come next.”


Asked about the choice of venue, Ms Gomersall noted: “We are always trying to find venues that meet the accessibility requirements that we need. I think that sometimes that’s not always perfect and that we should be striving for perfection when it comes to accessibility - it’s not always possible.”


Delegates call on NUS to ‘prioritise’ disabled students


Ahead of the upcoming NUS National Conference in April, several affected delegates told us that they feel like disabled students are an afterthought for NUS Scotland. One anonymous delegate stated that “NUS is missing the mark”, adding “NUS need to put in a policy that means disabled people are at the forefront of anything they’re doing.”


“How can NUS Scotland claim to represent all students when they’ve overlooked the basic accessibility needs of the majority of students in the past two days,” one delegate said.


"Student movements must prioritise and amplify marginalised voices."

In addition to speaking to Ms Gomersall, The Gaudie reached out to NUS Scotland for comment. 


A spokesperson said: “NUS takes accessibility very seriously and we are sorry delegates experienced issues at this year's conference. When concerns were raised with us we worked with the venue to address them. We are grateful for any feedback we get in relation to our conferences, and accessibility in general, and will strive to take it on board going forward.


"We are very sorry that we were unable to secure a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter. Arrangements had been made a number of months ago which unfortunately fell through at short notice, and we were unable to find a replacement despite contacting a number of companies."

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