Disabled Students’ Liberation candidate: Orfhlaith McDevitt

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

 

What motivated you to run for this position?

I have a pretty extensive background in political activism across a range of issues. My work with local youth groups and campaigns and involvement in the Scottish Youth Parliament and UK Youth Parliament have all shown me that, to a large extent, if you want something done you have to do it yourself. I nominated myself for this role from a position of anger and frustration at the lack of care the University of Edinburgh has to offer its students and at how we all seem to just accept this as another aspect of university life when attending a Russell Group institution. Rather selfishly, I wanted more from the student disability service and more from the Liberation Campaign. However, over the campaigning period alone I have met so many passionate and driven young people all with the same goals and fierce determination to take on the same issues I want to and now my motivation has definitely changed. As Liberation Officer I’m not just fighting for the rights of myself and other individual disabled students, but for our right to exist as a community within the university as more than just alpha-numeric sequences on the student disability service database.

What are your thoughts on the mandatory interruptions policy?

While of course there are some instances when the university has a right to step in if they believe a student is not fit to be at the university and may not be able to make the decision to leave by themselves, to force someone out of their studies without putting in the effort to try and help them first is abhorrent. Lecturers, personal tutors, even counselling staff cannot fully understand a student they see infrequently and should not have the power to even suggest a student is put on interruption. Not only does this take someone away from working toward a degree they have already dedicated themself to entirely just by gaining admission to a university as competitive as this. In more general terms it takes a person away from their home, friends and support system and asks them to try to heal without the option of even trying to get back to some sort of sense of normality which sometimes can be the best thing for a human being in need. Even using the term ‘mandatory’ in their briefing shows how business-like the approach is to student welfare at Edinburgh; it reads like a punishment. Perhaps if they had properly consulted students before radicalising a policy which should really only ever act as a safety net, a last resort to encourage students from not dropping out entirely, the policy would have been better formed and not received the backlash it has from the students it’s most likely to affect.

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

The opt-in screening policy for all University of Edinburgh students should not really be that ambitious a promise, considering how easily it could actually be rolled out across admissions and for returning students. Even as I answer these questions now, it’s easier to get my point across and be honest than it ever is for any student upon their first meeting with a personal tutor. Self-identification is all well and good as a tick-box on the Edinburgh University Students’ Association’s website, but how does someone with no idea they are classed by the university as a ‘disabled’ student know that there is a whole Liberation Campaign out there seeking to involve them? Obviously the time and effort that will need to be put into developing an appropriate system of screening will make the proposed policy very unattractive to the university, but surely by encouraging students to highlight any and all existing or potential issues they will face going forth with their studies from day one a dialogue can be established with personal tutors and support or advice given straight away (provided all tutors actually are aware of the services on offer which sadly isn’t always the case).

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 most definitely has a hate problem, and it goes beyond graffiti in bathroom stalls. A zero-tolerance policy is only as good as its implementation and definition of what it is actually intolerant to. One major problem at this university is people not understanding the difference between so-called ‘snowflake’ behaviour and being offended for completely valid reasons. Jokes about your signet ring are funny, jokes about oppressed, marginalised groups in our society are not. I would call on excellent groups like the BME Liberation Campaign, the African-Caribbean Society, the South-Asian Students’ Association, and other societies within the international and multicultural bracket to lead the fight against hate at our university.

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

Absolutely not. Delving into my own personal experience, I have only very recently been able to identify with the word ‘disabled’. So often it is presented as a term for people on the most extreme end of disability and I’m not the only one this issue of feeling ‘not disabled enough’ has affected. I am not differently abled from neurotypicals, and while I do quite literally have some very special and specific needs others may not, for goodness sake, call me disabled. I would go as far as to say that there are a great many terms I wish were more commonly used and not considered ‘offensive’. After a friend uttered the word ‘spergy’ in reference to Asperger’s Syndrome (although Autistic Spectrum Disorder(s) is what is commonly diagnosed nowadays) I kind of loved it. Maybe the invention of a ‘Lessabled’ sobriquet is needed, or maybe the acceptance and understanding that there is no need for any shame to exist around disability and the word itself would suffice.

Your opt-in scheme sounds great! Did you feel disconnected from the Liberation Campaigns upon your diagnosis?

Honestly, I didn’t know it was a thing, which is a perfect example of why not only the opt-in scheme but direct advertising by Liberation Campaigns to students the campaign effects is necessary.

You mention you want to increase dialogue between personal tutors (PTs) and students. What would you do to educate PTs about the correct way of doing this?

The difficulty in education professionals is ensuring they apply their training to all students no matter the type of disability. I would hope to run regular meetings with student reps and academics from each school to hear how they’re ensuring all student voices are being heard. Where problems are being faced I want to arrange for Q&A sessions to be held so the students affected by any failure by personal tutors to engage can vocalise how this problem affects them and how they would like adjustments to be made. This will hopefully reflect the individual needs of students and different disciplines.

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 say my sick poster edits but a classic case of executive dysfunction has meant I’ve not quite gotten round to putting them around yet. However, run along to my Facebook page for some catchy slogans and very (very) poor photoshop skill(z). The opt-in scheme has the potential to be groundbreaking but personally, I’m most looking forward to society and club engagement. So much can be done for disabled students without them even having to suffer through Student Disability Service meetings and arrangements. Involvement in sports and recreation can vastly improve student wellbeing and accessible events will ensure this involvement is achieved.  

 


 

 

The following is a transcription of Orfhlaith’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 Orfhlaith McDevitt, and I am standing for Disabled Students’ Liberation Officer. As disabled students, our needs are different from those around us without disabilities. The university has a duty of care to make sure those needs are met, and it is important that things like the Student Disability Service (SDS) are scrutinised, so we can as far as possible ensure all is being done to make sure that everyone has access to the best possible university experience. Currently we are not. The Student Disability Service is failing most people. There are so many stories and you talk to people who have went through the Disability Service, and everyone has the same “oh yeah, it was pretty bad” reaction.  I know from personal experience that it is such a small unit. It doesn’t feel like part of the university. To a large extent it feels like you are pushing yourself to get some kind of diagnosis, to get some kind of help, and it shouldn’t be such a struggle. It should be so much easier.

I am standing for this position because I wholeheartedly believe that our needs are not being met. That the university, alongside many of its Russell Group counterparts, have been throwing money at increasingly high levels of student dissatisfaction without addressing the underlying causes. I’m campaigning under the manifesto of diversifying out SDS so that there are more involved and engaging services to offer disabled students that will hopefully increase the participation and accessibility of Edinburgh’s wider student life. That basically is a whole spiel, but I just think that right now we’re being offered money, we’re being offered tech and we’re being offered counselling. There are so many things that the university can be doing. There are so many other things that other universities are doing that we are missing out on, because Edinburgh has said itself that the Student Disability Service has got a bit complacent.

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?

Personal tutors. I think it is an entirely redundant scheme that Edinburgh has put in where they don’t do anything other than put us onto courses. It is a perfect opportunity to find out that there is this little disability campaign – I didn’t know about it until this year. That’s because I had a very good personal tutor that was like, “there is some stuff going on that you should go along to.” Just being told that there is something going on is so much better than having to find it yourself, scrolling through all the Students’ Association’s events and trying to find something to go to that you would be interested in. It would be so easy for a personal tutor to turn around and say “look, you identify as this, you say that you are struggling, here is a list of support groups and events that you can go to. Here are some people you can contact for support.” Even just to find a sense of self. I know as a person I would love to meet with so many other people who are like me, but you don’t see them. We don’t have signs, we don’t have name tags! You do just want to have an easier, more accessible way to find people that are like you are. A personal tutor telling you where to go and what to do – I think that would be a really easy system to implement, telling personal tutors to be more on it and to know what they are talking about, and to be able to express to students what opportunities they have.

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?

Hopefully well! I’m a people person. I am excellent at answering emails. I’d be so interested to get some intersectional opportunities going on because people that experience one type of oppression are going to end up experiencing another just through the way that life works. It’s not black and white the way all these Liberation Campaigns are. Everyone is crossing in and out of lots of them. Even with Disability History Month, there is LGBT+ Disabled History within that, there is BME Disability History within that, so having these kind of crossover events would be really good. And I would be really up for that. So that is how I would work with the other Liberation Officers.

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 particularly enjoyed the events this year that were focused around lectures. We had talks, we had people come in who had grown up with disabilities, and it showed that adults with disabilities are achieving things. I think that’s a really helpful thing to have, to be able to see someone that’s actually succeeding, and to put yourself on them and be like “oh, it’s going to be ok.” It’s like the other candidates said, it’s about having events that are not just about getting people together – sometimes you want to be taught. You want to be taught coping mechanisms or how to pay attention in class when you have so much going on outside. You want to be taught how to navigate around campus; friends, the social agendas of people at university, picking courses and going into your Honours years, doing things as a disabled person. The kind of general advice that we get in first year doesn’t really help us. It’s not really specific for us. Disability History Month should be helpful, be educational, be something that people come away from thinking “I know more about myself, about other disabled people around me and at Edinburgh University.”

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

That’s a really difficult question when you think about it. Having a disability that some people don’t understand can be the most difficult thing in the world. It’s impossible to describe to people what you need if they don’t already understand what your disability is. It’s impossible having to explain to people every time, it’s exhausting. We need some kind of education in order to make people understand that there’s more than just what we see in people. Honestly it would be really hard to tackle. It would be the kind of thing that surveys and questions and answers would really benefit from, and from people who want to be represented.

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

Self-identification is obviously important and understanding what disabled means for you as an individual. But as well as that, I think access to the disabled campaign needs to be more than just “I’m disabled and I should join this thing.” I wish it was seen as something exciting, that people could come to university and see this whole group of people that are not just like them, but more like them than other people are like them, and they want to join it. Having someone tell you when you come to the University of Edinburgh that we have a society for you, a place for you, where you’re going to have a great time and you don’t have to stress about doing it. Getting people to come forward is one thing, but encouraging them is the best way to do it. Having to find campaigns, having to find disability services, having to find your own support is so exhausting. It should be easier than walking in to hear “so we have the disability service in the library, third floor, hidden in the back.” Where is the disability service at King’s or Easter Bush? Where is it at Little France? Where are the little places for us to gather, to get to other than the library? We need better awareness of what’s going on.

 

Image: Orfhlaith McDevitt

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