The Student contacted Disabled Students’ Liberation candidate Iona regarding her campaign and manifesto. To read Iona’s manifesto, click here.
What motivated you to run for this position?
For the past year I have been representing students on a academic and Students’ Association level, as Volunteering Representative and class rep. These roles have given me insight into the workings of various aspects of the university. However I found that I was coming up against barriers when trying to make the university more inclusive, including not holding a high enough position to be taken seriously.
I believe that as part of the Liberation Campaign I can make a real difference for disabled students who, like myself, feel isolated at a university that is increasingly focused on bigger student numbers, money making schemes and developments which fail to keep disabled students’ needs at the forefront of the conversation.
What are your thoughts on the mandatory interruptions policy?
I am completely against the policy in its current form, and have attended meetings to voice my opinions and support the group attempting to stop it. The policy strips students of autonomy, and the threat of a forced interruption will almost certainly prevent students seeking help and future disclosure.
Two of my main points in my manifesto are that of ‘Understanding’ and ‘Community’, and I don’t think we will see true cohesion between the Liberation Campaigns and community until we are taken seriously and consulted by the university – something which has not happened thus far with the mandatory interruptions policy. An especially concerning point of the proposed amendment is that the university does not seek to make contact with the student’s own GP or care practitioner to determine whether they are a risk to themselves or others. Disabled students, who are the majority of students this policy affects, are much more likely to see a doctor regularly, and as disability is incredibly nuanced, this stance on only introducing a doctor who does not know the student undermines this.
What is the most ambitious point on your manifesto and how do you plan to tackle it?
I think the most ambitious point on my manifesto is introducing inclusive club nights and Students’ Association events, simply because there are currently not available at all, excluding a lot of students, and introducing a new club night to Edinburgh is ambitious. When discussing these, and similar events, with employees of the Students’ Association in the past year, I have heard that the events would not be successful as they would not make as much money as current Students’ Association nights. This is an attitude that needs to change – disabled students do not exist to be commodified, we would like to be a part of the student community, but are currently excluded. In reality, if any number of disabled students attend then the events are a success, giving a space on campus for a marginalised group to participate in typical student life.
I plan to tackle this by introducing an inclusive club night at a Students’ Association venue at least once a semester to start with, as well as introducing quieter periods at Students’ Association venues such as the Sports Bar – these nights would be similar to what currently operates bimonthly at ATIK, with a lighter room, quieter music, and a less crowded venue.
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?
The instances of hate speech on our campuses are abhorrent, and the lack of condemnation and action by the university speaks volumes about the importance they place on student safety on campus. I am not part of any of the communities that have been targeted, but that does not mean that I should not take a stand against such actions. How can we seek to run successful Liberation Campaigns without advocating for other marginalised student communities?
The university needs to stand up against hate crime, enforcing strict no tolerance policies on anyone seen to be spreading hate speech on campus, and implementing a publicised support system for communities affected.
I think that any instance of hate speech on campus constitutes a hate problem, and the lack of response by the university itself may have mandated a further influx.
With person-first language being the norm, would “students’ officer for differently abled people” be a better title?
Disability is a very individual situation, and I cannot speak for the entire disabled student population without consultation. Personally, however, I am attempting to become more comfortable with using the label ‘disabled’ for myself after years of internalised and externalised stigma, and so I am comfortable with either person or disability-first language.
I understand the motivation towards person first language, but believe that much of the movement towards it is motivated by the incorrect idea that disability is something negative, rather than just being another aspect of who I am. For example, no one would refer to me as ‘someone with femaleness’ instead of ‘a woman’ as my gender identity is accepted as being a fact of myself, so why must ‘a disabled person’ be reduced to ‘a person with disabilities’ – as if the disability is tacked on as an afterthought not part of an identity.
With only three accessible study rooms at King’s and 15 in George Square, what would you do to ensure the university becomes more accessible?
First and foremost we need create much more individual accessible study rooms on campus, and branch out to the campuses that have absolutely no current provisions. Unfortunately, the university does not publish exact numbers of study spaces around campus, so my research here is based on information about number of computers available to students, as there are also computers in the accessible study rooms.
The latest student population numbers (for 2017/18) put the amount of students who have defined as disabled as 11.5 per cent of the total student population. However, the individual study spaces available for disabled students in no way reflect this. For example, the number of computers available at the main library accommodate 1.68 per cent of students who have not defined disabled, whereas the accessible study rooms only have room for 0.32 per cent of disabled students at anyone time. To bring the amount of accessible study rooms in line with the percentage offered to non-disabled students there would need to be 79.8 accessible rooms.
The same can be said for King’s, with the Library having computers available for 1.21 per cent of the non-disabled student population compared to 0.11 per cent for the self-defining disabled population. If this were to be inline with the number offered in the library there would need to be 57.5 accessible study rooms. This is not to mention all of the university’s other campuses, and department and subject libraries which provide study spaces, none of which include accessible study rooms.
The university also desperately needs to consult with disabled students about their needs – all too often we are told the university is putting something in place for us, which then turns out to be unusable due to access needs. There are so many state of the art teaching spaces at the university, but it is clear that little thought has gone into how disabled students will be able to use them, from fonts and colours which students with dyslexia or visual processing problems are unable to read, to landscape design which renders whole rooms and buildings unusable for students with a host of disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder, general processing disorders, as well as mobility conditions. Disabled students are well aware that we will not always be catered for in the first instance, but a simple consultation with staff would make everyone feel listened to. This is why I am pushing for increased education and understanding amongst all staff, from teaching to events.
You mention that 4,750 people are disabled at this university. Do you think that students hide their disability from peers, and if so what could be done to change this?
I certainly believe there are far more disabled students at the university that the number who self-define online. It may not be a case of hiding a disability from peers, but rather from the university itself, especially with the mandatory interruptions policy being fielded, as rather than support, students seem to be being encouraged to leave the university altogether.
I think a lot can be done to encourage more disabled students to self-identify, especially in regards to stigma in friend groups, and my manifesto includes the key point of ‘Understanding’. Much of the discourse with disabled students at the moment is that we would just like more people at the university, especially teaching staff and social groups, to be more aware and understanding of what disabled students may be experiencing. Understanding and creating a discourse between the groups is the first step towards creating a more unified student community. My policies in this area include a widespread poster campaign in the same vein as the very successful #NoExcuse campaign, with an aim to dispel myths around disability and start open a supportive discourse.
I also think that more widespread publication of the Disabled Student’s Liberation Campaign will help students, especially those new to the university, to feel less isolated in terms of their disability, and would hopefully allow them to discuss it with their friends, as its presence on campus should be well known and commonplace.
Finally, is there anything in particular about your manifesto/campaign that you want to draw students’ attention to? What is your favourite policy?
I would like to highlight my plans for ‘Disability & Employability’ workshops, which will be run in conjunction with the careers service and Advice Place.
In the UK, only 51.3 per cent of disabled people of working age are employed. When compared to the 81.4 per cent of those without disabilities in employment, it is clear that something in the discourse around disability needs to change. These workshops will have a large focus on disclosure in the workplace, something disabled people face in their day to day lives, and which can often impact how they are viewed by an employer. With the cultural stigma around mental health issues and other invisible disabilities, I hope to make it clear that everyone is employable, and provide guidance, some of it legal, on how to approach being comfortable in the workplace.
The following is a transcription of Iona’s responses during the Liberations Candidate’s Question Time which took place on Friday 1 March 2019.
Some answers may have been edited for clarity.
Hi, I’m Iona. I use she/her pronouns and I’m a second year Linguistics student. I have three points in my manifesto: access, understanding and community. There are more 4,500 disabled students at the university who self-define. There are going to be a lot more who aren’t self-defining, who don’t feel connected with the Disabled Students’ Movement at the moment, so I want to increase liberation and access to disabled study spaces, and more inclusion in events in general. In the past year, I have been a class rep but also actively volunteering, so I am seeing the teaching side but also the Edinburgh University Students’ Association side of representation. I’ve been working with Shenan [current Vice-President Activities and Services] on trying to push forward some inclusive amendments. It’s a long slog, and we will try and do something.
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?
So last year the university had 4,750 people register as disabled, but there is a lot more people here who aren’t self-defining because of internalised stigma and externalised stigma, which is very prevalent. My manifesto talks a lot about inclusion and access. We need more Students’ Association events that are more accessible. ATIK do a bi-monthly accessible club night, in which they have lights up and lower music. It just allows people to feel more included. We don’t have things at the university or the Students’ Association that allow for this type of inclusion and, especially during Welcome Week when disabled students might be looking to go out for a night, they are facing so many barriers and these clubs are just excluding them. It doesn’t have to be every week, it doesn’t have to be every day, but once or twice a month or a semester having people feel like they belong somewhere is a massive step towards helping people define and belong to a community.
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’m going to echo what a lot of people in the room have said tonight – liberation is not a single cause for a single marginalised group. We all need to work together. We are not going to be able to liberate one group without liberating another group. Within the disabled community there is a lot of stigma, especially internationally. BME people, women especially, when they go to doctors and report illnesses and disabilities, they are often dismissed in general as a group. Adding disability to that, and the stigma that comes with that, there are just piles and piles of very hard shit to deal with. We all need to deal with that and work together too. It’s all about stigma I think, and if we have joint campaigns, joint posters, even joint discussions saying, “this is how I intersect with this community,” creating a sense of belonging across groups will help with that.
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?
I think I would use Disability History Month to kick off a wider set of campaigns year round… there are a lot of crossovers especially in disability history with LGBT+ history and BME history, and also I don’t feel that disabled students’ voices in this university are prominent enough. We don’t hear them. I speak to people and they are like “what? That’s not what disabled people are like,” because there is no understanding. So there has to be more education, especially within schools and teaching in general, a poster campaign, and disability and employment workshops – which is a very strong thing for me, since there is under 60 per cent of disabled students and disabled people in the UK who are actually in employment. Reducing stigma, disclosure in the workplace and things like that are a big part of what disabled people face every day.
How will you ensure that the voices of students with less well known disabilities are heard and the issues affecting them are addressed?
Disability is a very nuanced thing, so someone with the same disability as me is experiencing it very differently; there needs to be a lot of consultation with students about. I’m going to say it again: accessibility. Not just general accessibility, but things like can people read that slide, is this colour scheme going to effect how people read it or how they engage with the class? A lot of it is that we need to be spoken to, a lot of the decisions making at the moment is being made by people who sit on committees and they’ve never spoken to a disabled student. They dont know what we need, they don’t know what we want. We’re coming up against people who are like “this is what the decision is, this is what its like, we’ve already planned for it.” They talk to a lecturer and then the lecturer says, “this isn’t what I’ve been told,” so you are coming up against a brick wall. And I think all disabled people are facing that, but there are disabilities that are less well known on campus. We need voices for everyone.
What do you see as the main barriers for students engaging with the Disabled Students’ Campaign and how would you address this?
I think it comes down to two levels. I think there’s a teaching level and social level. I think a lot of disabled people don’t engage with the campaign because of what they experience on a school level and education level: they’re not being listened to on adjustments or anything like that, so they don’t want to engage because nothing is being put in place. What should be in place isn’t in place. On a social level, we don’t really have a place here, there’s nowhere for us to engage with each other, meet each other. It needs to change on a fundamental systemic level to have us engage more really. I mean, I’ve had lecturers tell me I’m lying about my disability to my face after my adjustment. There’s a lot of discourse, and when to do it and disclosure is a very big hurdle. You don’t know who to do it with and where to do it, and a lot of that is because of the attitudes we are facing. And that is why people are not engaging.
Image: Sarah Cooper