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Disabled students are at Breaking Point

By Stella Dixon, MPhil Social Anthropology, President of SOAS Disabled Students’ Society

I was originally going to write this article about Disability History Month – but more than the history of disabled struggles for rights and equality, I think the SOAS community needs to hear about the experiences of disabled students at our university.

Picture this: you’re a new student at SOAS and, like one in five of the student body, you’re disabled – which includes any physical and mental condition with a substantial and long-term impact on your life. Let’s say you have ADHD and use a wheelchair.

During Fresher’s Week you’re told to email Student Advice and Wellbeing to set up the adjustments you need for lectures and tutorials. Sounds straightforward enough.

Because of your ADHD you keep forgetting, but you finally manage to send the email in week two. Oh, and the Fresher’s Fair happened, but you couldn’t see most of the stalls because they were on the Green and the ramp was too steep. Great, there goes your chance of making any friends.

Out of nowhere, it’s week five and your deadlines are coming up. But you have an extension… right? You realise your email never got a reply. You email again. “Your email has been sent to the back of the queue…”

Now you’re panicking. You don’t have extensions. None of your lectures are accessible, so you haven’t learned anything anyway, and you find the newly refurbished campus overwhelming. There’s nowhere quiet to gather your thoughts. Your library loans don’t auto-renew so now you have fines racking up; money you don’t have because you had to pay extra for an accessible room and you keep having to buy ready meals when you forget to eat.

Your deadlines are now at midnight and your assignments still aren’t written. You’ve heard about ‘mitigating circumstances’ from a friend but the SOAS website has no information. You frantically ask around while trying to finish your assignments. Someone finally gets back to you just after midnight. You submit your mitigating circumstances application and relax a bit – at least you have another week before the late deductions start. You submit your assignments eight days after the deadline. Onwards and upwards, you’ll take the 2% hit.

You hear nothing until week eight when you get an email saying your mitigating circumstances application was rejected because it had been submitted after the deadline. Your assignments are graded zero. You sink into your bed and don’t come out for two days.

Eventually, you appeal. It takes six months to hear back. Not one single person from the SOAS administration has actually spoken to you.

This is not fiction. This is the reality for hundreds of disabled students at SOAS, a story that replays again and again in my inbox as president of the Disabled Students’ Society.

One of the many disabled toilets in SOAS where the emergency cord does not reach the floor. This is dangerous because it may stop disabled people from getting help

“We are not a small minority falling through a few gaps in safety nets, we are a crowd of almost 800 people being forced to dodge chasms.”

We are not a small minority falling through a few gaps in safety nets, we are a crowd of almost 800 people* being forced to dodge chasms – all while doing the already stressful job of existing as a disabled person in the UK, with the NHS and social support in crisis; and we need your solidarity.

The SOAS Disabled Students’ Society aims to provide a space at SOAS where disabled students can be themselves, socialise, share skills, celebrate and organise. We aim to be a space where our disabled minds and bodies can be celebrated and loved how they are, without pressure to change. We pool our skills to provide support to each other and aim to use our collective voice for change.

We are run by volunteers who are disabled ourselves. This month we’re carrying the torch for Disability History Month, running seven events between four committee members – one of whom is recovering from surgery. Our events include banner making, a ‘scary hour’ where we support each other with our life admin, and putting together a podcast episode featuring disabled voices at SOAS. Meanwhile, the University organised just one event and didn’t provide any of the help they promised with graphics and advertising. As usual for SOAS – where we have had to fight for everything from accessible library desks to murals in the SU – it was down to disabled students with limited capacity to put in the hard work.

Disabled students are burned out and exhausted but we will not give up. Next term, we will campaign to improve Mitigating Circumstances, an inhumane process that is failing us all. We have already begun collecting testimonies and thanks to this, we were able to take tangible stories to the SU and University, resulting in a win for students with ‘fluctuating conditions’ on their SIPs who can now get Mitigating Circumstances with no further evidence. But we can go further and we will.

How can you support us? What do we want to achieve this month? It starts with visibility. Realise that disabled people are among you, visible or not, and our fight for justice intersects with all the causes you see at SOAS. When you only view some bodies and minds as valuable, you cannot meaningfully tackle injustice.

Then we need you to act. Amplify disabled voices. Come to our events. Learn about disability justice and apply its principles in your movements. Embrace radical rest and care for each other. But most of all, work with us to build a SOAS community with accessibility and acceptance at its heart.

And if you think you might be disabled, or you aren’t sure, you’re not alone and we’re here for you.

Information: Our Instagram is @soasdisabledstudents and our WhatsApp group can be accessed through the links provided on our Instagram page. Alternatively, you can reach us by email at [email protected].

* based on Dec 2020 figures provided by the University

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