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Hidden Disabilities at SOAS

  • Opinion

Hannah Smith, BA International Relations and Arabic

When entering the SOAS campus, you may have noticed the signs informing us that it is disability history month. These hard-to-miss posters seem to represent a wider strategy at this university: projecting an image of inclusivity whilst concealing a vastly different reality. To many of us with disabilities, it is a laughable display of solidarity. I will stipulate here that this article refers specifically to the experiences of people with hidden disabilities relating to learning and mental illness, although its themes may be relevant to the experiences of those with other types of hidden or visible disabilities. 

According to Scope UK, an estimated 80% of the 14 million disabled people in the UK have an invisible disability. The reality of this can be dark for many people, not only must we cope with managing ourselves, we must also convince people that our difficulties are real. This makes student life particularly complex. It means being vulnerable to judgement from others and sometimes exposing personal trauma in order to be treated with empathy. There are hurdles to overcome before starting the day that neurotypical people never see or experience. Missing one lecture can induce an overwhelming spiral, as the readings and subsequent classes then make no sense, and approaching an assignment or exam becomes nearly impossible. This bleeds out into our social lives, as the energy it takes to make it through the day can become so drained that there is none left for spending time with friends. On top of this, activities that should feel replenishing or good for the soul become taxing, which cycles back to feeling unable to attend classes. We use so much of our energy just getting to the starting line, while most others have already begun the race.

Upon enrollment at SOAS, we are asked to check a box asking whether or not we have a disability. From a standardised list of options, we are allowed to choose which extra accommodations we require, such as deadline extensions, in our Study Inclusion Plan (SIP). The extent of our individual needs is limited to a set of choices that have already been deemed manageable. As a result, the burden is placed on the disabled individual to self-advocate, which can be the hardest thing for us to do. When we are able to try, it is still possible that we remain unheard. The dedicated staff members of the Disability Office and Student Welfare team scramble to answer the never-ending emails and provide support however they can, but our concerns are often either redirected, delayed, or acknowledged but ultimately unaddressed due to a lack of resources.

“It seems that there is help at SOAS for those with learning and mental illness-related disabilities, as long as you fit the established criteria of what constitutes a disabled person.”

In 2020, SOAS spent £25,000 on support for access and participation for disabled people – less than half the amount spent on Director Adam Habib’s private residence (according to SOAS’s financial records). It is hard to reconcile this fact with their supposed stance on caring about disabled people. Thus, it seems that there is help at SOAS for those with learning and mental illness-related disabilities, as long as you fit the established criteria of what constitutes a disabled person. You may choose what you require from a set list of fixed options, anything else you may need is for you to organise. Yet, by the very nature of having a disability that affects cognitive functions, many of us are unable to do so. Even if we can, the resources available are stretched to their limits, and the staff are overwhelmed with student demands. 

Sadly, the ableism at SOAS comes as no surprise to us. It is a reflection of a set of social issues that permeates everyday life for a disabled person. As a result, many of us do not speak up. Meeting our needs is presented as an inconvenience, so many of us stay silent in our ableist-induced shame. I am hoping to change that. We should not, and will not, apologise for asking for our basic, fundamental needs to be met. It is easy to ignore a group of people who struggle to advocate for themselves. So, they acknowledge our existence to make the brand of SOAS seem inclusive, but refuse to engage meaningfully with our demands. The problem is not that disabled people exist, it is that we are expected to function in a society that refuses to cater to a diversity of needs. 

Photo Caption: A Disability History Month poster at the entrance to SOAS’s Campus (Credit: Hannah Smith).

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