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Wheelchair athlete Claire settles case after getting stuck in lift at Northern Regional College

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 21/01/2016

Claire Taggart, in her Larne home
Claire Taggart, in her Larne home
Claire Taggart preparing for the Paralympics Games
Claire training

A wheelchair athlete who aims to compete at the Rio Paralympics has settled a discrimination case against her former college after she had to be rescued from a faulty lift by firefighters.

Claire Taggart claimed she was unable to access classrooms at Northern Regional College because the lifts were not working.

The 20-year-old took a case with the help of the Equality Commission. It has now been settled, with the college apologising and paying out £1,000.

Claire said: "Making sure someone like me can actually get to my classes is the most basic requirement when it comes to providing equal access for disabled students."

Claire, who is from Larne, studied animal management at Northern Regional College in Newtownabbey.

A keen sportswoman, she is a member of the Ulster Barbarians Wheelchair Rugby Club.

She also represents Great Britain in boccia - a precision ball sport - and is a contender for the 2016 Paralympic Games.

Last month she narrowly missed out on a gold medal in the Great Britain National Championships.

Claire suffers from functional dystonia, a condition that contracts the muscles in her body, forcing them into fixed abnormal positions. In just three years she went from being fully able-bodied to permanently needing a wheelchair.

Claire's condition means she depended on the college's lifts to access classrooms.

She described how she sometimes had difficulty getting to classes because the lifts were out of order.

"I had on occasion to make my way up and down stairs on my bottom while other students carried my wheelchair for me," Claire said.

"As I now need a powered wheelchair, this was no longer possible. I was even told to go home because the lifts were not working."

In May 2014 she got stuck in a college lift and had to be rescued by the Fire Service.

Claire told how this brought matters to a head. "I had some access difficulties in the past, but I never had to be rescued by a fireman before," she explained.

"I'm pleased that, as a result of my complaints, the college has taken measures to deal with the problems that I encountered."

Northern Regional College apologised to Claire, made a payment of £1,000, and affirmed its commitment to equality of opportunity.

It also took specific measures to deal with problems affecting the lifts. These included upgrading the lift, which had been breaking down, and ensuring that hydraulic cab release switches were located in an accessible position.

Equality Commission chief Michael Wardlow said disability discrimination still formed the bulk of the body's workload.

"Every year the commission gets more complaints about disability than about any other sort of discrimination," he added.

"The most common cause of complaint regarding access to education is the failure of institutions to make a reasonable adjustment so that a disabled person is not placed at a disadvantage in comparison with other students.

"Disability discrimination is a continuing problem and we maintain our focus on addressing it."

A college spokesman said it regretted that the former student experienced circumstances that fell short of its normal standards of access.

He added: "We aim to promote equality of opportunity in all of the college's activities and to ensure that we provide a supportive, fair, inclusive and welcoming environment for all staff, students and visitors free from any form of discrimination or harassment.

"We are continuing our ongoing awareness-raising amongst students of the needs of disabled students and delivery of mandatory staff training to promote disability awareness and equality.

"The college is also in the process of rolling out a compulsory online course for staff focused on safeguarding and equality and diversity."

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