Disabled Students’ Liberation candidate: Ellen Blunsdon

The Student contacted Disabled Students’ Liberation Officer candidate Ellen regarding her campaign and manifesto. To read Ellen’s manifesto, click here.

 

What motivated you to run for this position?

As a disabled woman, I have felt underrepresented, marginalised and discriminated against both structurally as a student at the University of Edinburgh and as an individual on campus. While I have been channeling these frustrations into activism, working with the Timetabling Services, proposing diversification of the curriculum and spreading awareness about my personal experiences throughout the academic year, I want to make even more significant changes to the lives of disabled students at this university. Being Disabled Students’ Officer would help me to implement some of my bolder policy ideas, allow me to build a stronger disabled community on campus and give me a platform to raise the voices of all the incredible disabled students at this university.

What are your thoughts on the mandatory interruptions policy?

The mandatory interruption policy is absolutely disgraceful. For our university to have such blatant disregard for not only its vulnerable students but the advice of mental health charities, normative government regulation and the wishes of the student body shows a complete lack of fundamental understanding on issues of mental health. While it is horrendous for all students, this policy will disproportionately affect the university’s disabled community and as Disabled Students’ Officer, I would use everything in my power to ensure this policy is scrapped and ask that the university apologises for their actions.

What is the most ambitious point on your manifesto and how do you plan to tackle it?

Lobbying the university to adopt a policy of liberation, not compliance will definitely be a challenge. Their current Estates, Timetabling and other administrative policies currently aim to meet basic government regulation rather than focus on finding truly radical and creative solutions to the accessibility problems on campus, leaving disabled students at an inherent disadvantage in our studies. However, this will not be impossible. I have already secured a focus group of staff and students to help tackle some of the root causes of these inaccessibility issues and have brought forward a timetabling modelling exercise that would see the times between classes being increased from 10 to 15 minutes. While progress is slow and my policies may not come into full fruition for a few years, as Disabled Students’ Officer I would fight tirelessly to make tangible changes to the structures of this university.

Antisemitic graffiti was found in the toilets of the Old Medical School on Thursday. Transphobic graffiti has also been found in university bathrooms. How should the university be tackling hate crime and does our university have a hate problem?

Our university for sure has a hate problem but sadly that’s because society has a hate problem that continues to uphold and perpetuates discrimination against marginalised groups. While the university has condemned these incidences, a simple letter of disagreement does nothing to tackle the core issue with more resources going into the prevention of this type of absolutely abhorrent hate crime. Whether it’s employing more estates staff to do regular sweeps of university bathrooms to prevent students from having to find these horrific messages, creating campaigns of education or making a commitment to holding perpetrators to account, it is clear that the university needs to do more.

With person-first language being the norm, would “students’ officer for differently abled people” be a better title?

Short answer: Absolutely Definitely Not. People-first language was developed in the social climate of the 1980s where disability activism focused, generally, on integrating disabled people into society based on our similarities to the ‘norm’, rather than recognising the unique disabled experience. As advocacy trends have changed, our community have begun to recognise that this norm is actually extremely harmful. By ‘focusing on personhood’, people-first language minimises our conditions and strongly implies that there is something wrong with having a disability by skirting around the term.

The label of ‘disabled’ is one that should be worn with pride and implementing such a name change would further build the damaging stigma and shame that surrounds our community. In disabled students forums, I have strongly expressed my opposition to the proposed name change to the Student Disability Service that would remove the reference to disability. Any naming changes such as these would not be inclusionary, needed or beneficial; they would be highly exclusionary, completely unnecessary and entirely harmful to our community.

You talk of a zero tolerance ableism policy. What would you do to educate people about the effects of their words and actions, or is it up to people to find this out for themselves?

In activism of any kind, you have to walk that fine line between education and self-preservation as your abilities of performative emotional labour can only go so far and sometimes people need to just learn how to use Google. As Disabled Students’ Officer, I would focus on taking the brunt of education away from disabled students, acting as a resource where people can go to be educated on disability issues without disabled students having to answer draining questions.

I see the zero-tolerance policy more as a conversation starter and protective measure for students in reporting hate crimes and being safe on campus, however, my manifesto definitely also covers education. This will be achieved through the creation of a Resources Hub on the Students’ Association website, which will contain informative materials for both disabled and able-bodied students, and through my weekly drop-in sessions where students of all intersecting identities will be able to ask me any questions they have about disability as well as being able to raise concerns and individual problems.

Including disability in the curriculum is undoubtedly an important goal. How would you go about ensuring it is not piecemeal and purely quota fitting?

I have sat through one too many history lectures where that week’s theme is “women” to know that tokenization in academia is definitely a problem. This is why me and Diva – the current Vice President Education – are pushing for an entirely new course that would focus solely on disabled studies, rather than aiming to cram such a nuanced and exciting topic into preexisting courses that may not integrate disability in a positive way.

With the successes of the university’s new gender and queer studies courses, and the wide support for the upcoming race course, it is clear that the demand for a similar disability history or theory course would exist, it’s now about finding the right academic to start devising the course. This is currently in its early stages but we definitely have people in mind and I truly believe this is a manifesto policy that could easily be implemented in time for the 2020/21 academic year.

Finally, is there anything in particular about your manifesto/campaign that you want to draw students’ attention to? What is your favourite policy?

I am most excited to help strengthen the disabled community of students on campus. Being any kind of liberation officer offers such an incredible opportunity to build a network of engaged and empowered students with intersectional identities but with disabled students especially, the community is in such a good place to really build momentum within the next academic year. Through inclusive and accessible events, I will really focus on creating connections between students and foster an environment of celebration. There are so many incredible disabled students on campus, I just can’t wait for us all to come together.

 

 


 

The following is a transcription of Ellen’s responses during the Liberation Candidate’s Question Time which took place on Friday 1 March 2019.

Some answers may have been edited for clarity.

 

My name is Ellen Blundson, I use she/her pronouns and a third year History and Politics student. I live with both physical and mental disabilities, so I feel like I have both sides of that fun coin! I’m a current member of the Disabled Students’ Campaign Committee as well as, I’d like to think, a fairly active disability campaigner both on campus and outwith campus. My current manifesto is a two-pronged approach. First of all breaking down the stigma that surrounds the word “disability” and the disabled community as a whole. I think, through celebration, we can create an active participatory and exciting movement through the Disabled Students’ Campaign. I would do this through a zero tolerance policy against ableism, as well as weekly drop-in sessions where people can come to me and allow me to elevate voices of disabled students. Disability is such a wide spectrum of issues, all of which I have definitely not experienced, and being able to listen to students, getting that face to face connection, and as well building our community through various events would be my first aim.

Alongside this celebratory breaking down stigma aspect would be more institutional change, which I have tried to work on this past year. I’ve been working with the wonderful Diva [Mukherji, current Vice-President Education] to include disability in the curriculum as well as looking into the timetabling department to, overall, make the estates department look at liberation rather than simple government compliance, which seems to be where they are going in their amazing pledger plans. I’d also focus on training as well as creating a resource hub for disabled students. I’m so passionate about disability issues, and I care far too deeply about public policy! I would really appreciate the opportunity to get this role to make a real difference to the lives of disabled students like me, because it can be really difficult.

How do you plan to engage students who haven’t been involved in the Disabled Students’ Campaign before, including those who are new to the university?

I personally think that encouraging self-definition is a really important part of this. A lot of people don’t feel disabled enough to access the resources that we have here at Edinburgh, and if you’re having those thought processes in your head you probably are disabled enough. Due to that personal discomfort, you might not want to label yourself as disabled due to all of the fears of institutional exclusion: systematic bullshit that really does affect disabled people’s state of life. Encouraging self-definition would mean that people would decide they are disabled and then they would be able to access the campaign, which would then create more engagement. Practically, it is very difficult to do this. It is a very long term thing, but I think it can be done through awareness and celebration, focusing on the vibrant and exciting aspects of the disabled community that are so often ignored.

How do you see yourself working alongside the other Liberation Officers to ensure that students who experience intersecting oppressions feel welcome in the Disabled Students’ Campaign?

I completely agree with the other candidates. Statistically, if you are LGBT+, if you are a woman, a person of colour, you are more likely to experience a disability. Intersectionality and intersectional identities are such important parts of our community. To collaborate on events and campaigns with the other Liberation Officers is such a great opportunity to involve people in our work. For example, following the recent horrific transphobia on campus, as Disabled Students’ Liberation Officer you have a great platform to support the mental health of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming students, signposting resources, and making sure that events are accessible to students of all identities. I think then that also intersects with the antisemitism that was discovered on campus just yesterday. I would hope that my zero tolerance against ableism policy would also feed into that. I think having any kind of zero tolerance stance policy against anything is always really useful and hopefully this would also feed in to a wider sense of acceptance on campus.

Coordinating Disability History Month has been part of the role of Disabled Students’ Liberation Officer, so what events would you like to see as part of Disability History Month?

The theme hasn’t been announced yet for Disability History Month, but I would like to incorporate that theme whatever it may be into the events that we do, so that its not only Disability History Month for Edinburgh students on campus but that it is also a Disability History Month that connects disabled students from Edinburgh with the wider disabled community, nationally and internationally. I think it’s really important to have an ethos of mixed events; club nights, poetry slams and public speaking events are brilliant, but we should also try to match them with coffee mornings, craft afternoons and things like that. These might not necessarily be for 100 disabled students but for five or six, so people feel that there is alway an event that represents them and that they feel able to access these things. This would ensure that they are not something that becomes a stress so we have a wide range of things people can experience. That’s the way we are going to connect the community – through individual interactions and with people who have shared interests and shared experiences. If we can create a variety of events that all students feel like they are able to go to, that’s really helpful for creating a community.

So fourth question, how do you plan to work with societies and student groups to get more people involved in the Disabled Students’ Campaign?

So on a personal level I think societies have been the most important part of my university experience so far, making me as successful as possible. It’s a great way of creating a community, not just within the disabled student community but the wider student body. I was lucky enough to be the first chosen writer of the Voices section of The Student newspaper. The Voices section is an incredible initiative that really gives platforms to different groups of people to share their voice, to share their story in a very unfiltered authentic way. I think using this as a model to adapt further societies where writing, creativity or even sport is a great way of encouraging disabled students and then also widening into intersectional identities. This allows people to have a voice on campus that is more widely known. To raise the voices of the marginalised is such an important part of the work that we’re all doing here and I think that that’s a great model that we can then roll out to other societies. I also then think that societies aren’t enough, that there’s scope with careers and mature students and parents as well. I think that they’re often groups that are so completely ignored at the university. Despite having representatives, they’re not here tonight. I think that reaching out to those groups as well is hugely important.

How will you ensure that the voices of students with less well known disabilities are heard and the issues affecting them are addressed?

No shade, but I definitely agree with the question in that the work of the Disabled Students’ Campaign has been great over the past few years that I’ve been at university, but also, as someone who has a physical disability and a mental health condition that is beyond anxiety or depression, I do feel very left out of the conversation a lot. I think the university are doing some work with people who have anxiety and depression and their voices are being taken into account a little bit, but I think that including the voices of people with different disabilities is the best way to tackle this. Though short term, in terms of making the lives of student with disabilities better, I want to create small hubs of disabled students with different disabilities. Again, no disabled student has the same experience as another, however we do have that common ground of having shit medical facilities and having doctors not believe us. We all have that common ground between us. I don’t want to group disabilities together, but create networks of disabled students who are closer together in terms of identity than this massive different disability spectrum. I also want to take the brunt of education away from disabled people having to do it and to put that on the focus on the campaign, as its exhausting having to educate everyone you meet –  it’s terrible.

What do you see as the main barriers for students engaging with the Disabled Students’ Campaign and how would you address this?

So I think what I was saying earlier about self-identification. I think in this horrific world, it is hard to identify as disabled in the first place. Because of all the systemic exclusion disabled people face and the massive discomfort I felt with the label “disabled”, I did not use it for ten years of having a disability, which is ridiculous looking back, but I totally feel that thing of not wanting to declare that kind of thing. I think people not self-identifying is the biggest barrier to not joining the campaign, so I think breaking that down through awareness. Again, what I was saying about taking the brunt of education way from disabled people and putting that on the campaign, to really work hard, to make sure people understand disability and understand ableism, so people can learn how to talk about disability. Like, I make terrible jokes about being a disabled person and they’re like, “can I laugh?” Yeah, you can laugh, but if you said that that’d be bad. It’d be having those conversations and breaking down those barriers and talking to each other openly and honestly, and people asking stupid questions in the best way, shouldn’t be on disabled students to answer. If I was Disabled Students’ Officer, it should be on me.

 

Image: Andrew Perry

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