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How can I be who I don't see?

2017-01-30

On the 26th of January, I attended the Westminster Higher Education Forum on disabled students with two people from the Getting Things Changed project I am a part of.

Following the event, delegates are invited to submit an article to the briefing document for the event. Below is my submission:

In this commentary, I would like to continue reflections which started in the sessions which were focussed on disabled students’ participation and inclusion.

Key aspects about offering equal opportunities in learning were explored with regards to providing support for students. This included promoting inclusive universal design, which benefits all students. Beyond that, the importance of having access to all aspects of the university life was highlighted – indeed disabled students can be at a disadvantage in their social life as well as academically.

As a disabled PhD student, one aspect I felt was perhaps not mentioned is how inclusion and participation do not stop there either. For example, one thing disabled students sorely lack in universities, just as other minority groups do, is that we do not see ourselves represented in our institutions’ staff. Since disabled students can be part of other minority groups at the same time, there are students who will be even less represented, depending on the particular intersections of their identities.

By ensuring disabled students get a good university experience, we also ensure that a proportion of us are able to stay on as academics – a proportion which should be similar to our nondisabled counterparts. Note that I do not say “want to stay on as academics” – based on my experience talking with other disabled students, the barrier is not an unwillingness to stay on. Rather, the barrier is a system which puts us as a disadvantage in the workforce: what if you required numerous extensions for health reasons? What if you seem unreliable because of disability-related reasons? What if you were not able to network enough, or well enough during your PhD? Perhaps even more tangibly, what if the department which has the perfect job for you does not have an accessible bathroom?

However inclusive the learning environment is, however much support is put in place to support disabled students, I do not believe we can truly feel part of the academy unless we see ourselves in the academy. The power of seeing someone who looks like you and moves like you cannot be understated. The power of seeing someone disabled be who you want to be cannot be understated, when you have grown up wondering what you might become someday because no one around you seemed to be quite like you.

One could say that this lack of “seeing ourselves in others” was exemplified in this event itself. While it is not always possible to see that someone is disabled, it was clear most speakers were not disabled simply based on how they spoke of disabled people (“them” versus “us”).

This leads me to wonder: who are these events for? I would argue that having nondisabled experts presenting does matter, because the reality is most of the people who can change things are not disabled themselves, and therefore this encourages everyone to realise they can do it too. On the other hand, if we are to promote having disabled students at the heart of decision-making, then the experts we choose also need to reflect that. I would have liked to hear from more people with lived experience, including those who are in official roles relating to the subject at hand. If they do not exist, then we must ask why.

I truly hope that, as people work hard to improve the situation of disabled students, more of us will become University staff, in turn making other disabled students feel welcome. I also hope more disabled people feel able to disclose, as our presence becomes more and more unconditionally accepted.

This commentary was written with Dr Sue Porter in mind, a wonderful disabled academic who passed away on the 11th of January 2017 .

with thanks to Lilit for lending her editing skills.

Tags: academia, conferences, disability