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In Conversation with Disabled Students’ Liberation Officer: Ellen Blunsdon

ByMaryam Helmi

Oct 30, 2019

How are you feeling this morning?

Really good. I had a rough start to the week, but I am feeling rested. I have exciting things going on for today. I was in the first stages for a lot of projects for a while, but now we are at the point where these projects are confirmed and happening.


In your manifesto, you spoke about Staff Mental Health Accessibility Training. As the personal tutor system is currently under review, how has that affected your goals to provide mandatory training?

The end goal is for mental health and accessibility training to be compulsory, but because of the changes to the personal tutor system, consultation is currently my focus. With the transitory point that the University of Edinburgh is at with the personal tutor system, my focus is to make sure that disabled students are fully involved with the consultation. This is something I would love for my successor [to continue] down the line.


You also said that you wanted to take a radical, creative approach to ensure that the University of Edinburgh creates a safer and more accommodating campus. What did you have in mind?

I have been able to develop a good relationship with Kyle Clark-Hay, who is the Head of Estates Business Services. He has been incredibly supportive. I told him my vision for accessibility on campus and it is lovely to hear that he, with his position of power, has been so receptive to everything I was saying. My position [as Disabled Students’ Liberation Officer] has given me a platform to make actual changes, like the furniture consultation I have today for the new Health and Wellbeing Centre. Another incredible woman who was Disabled Students’ Liberation Officer about 6 years ago, and is still at the University of Edinburgh for her PhD, will be joining me, along with Oona Lilly Miller, VP Welfare, and Andrew Wilson, President. We also have disabled students involved to help make sure that the furniture is as accessible as it can be. It is little changes like that which matter. You are going to notice them when you go into a space.


Do you have an idea when the Health and Wellbeing Centre will open?

I know that the pharmacy is opening sooner, whereas the rest of the centre will open hopefully by the week of the Festival of Creative Learning in February.


On the academic side, your manifesto also said that you want to include disability in the curriculum. What kind of academic disciplines will you base this on?

Steph Vallancey, the VP for Education, had put me in touch with Allette Willis, who is the Programme Director for Health in Science and Society at the School of Social Sciences. Within 5 minutes of our meeting, we agreed to have a Disability Studies module in place at the School of Social Science by the 2020/2021 academic year. We are currently applying for the Principal’s Teaching Award scheme, which we will use to hire an intern who self-defines as disabled to shape the course in Semester 2. They will lead consultations with disabled students not only on how to make the course content interesting and reflective of understanding around disability and disability politics, but also how to make the teaching of the course accessible. We are trying to make as many innovations as we can within teaching and learning so that this can apply to the wider university, so that all courses can be as accessible as possible. This course will be an Honours-level course within the School of Health and Social Sciences, and it will be available for disabled people and their allies, regardless of whether they are in the School or not.


Speaking of community building, PrideSoc is organising an event called Tackling White Supremacy in LGBTQ+ Spaces. Do you have any thoughts on doing something similar?

The disabled student community at Edinburgh has potential, but it is difficult. When you compete with so many institutional boundaries and difficulties as a disabled student anyway, you feel like you have to tackle ableism within your course space, within your group of friends, within the university and within the city itself before you can then start to work on liberation. We only have so much energy to give out into this world. When you spend so much of your time applying for benefits and fighting for the resources that you need and dealing with ignorant comments from ableist people, it is extra energy. You do not always have the ability to get involved with disability activism, because not every disabled person will want to. It is difficult to build that kind of community when people are fighting. We [struggle individually] just being in university spaces that are not made for us, so when you tackle ableism yourself, it is hard to get that kind of community spirit because you are tired. It is difficult; we are combating our health and we are combating ableism.


I suppose the same would extend to disabled people who face multiple forms of oppression, in addition to ableism.

Exactly. It is compoundly more difficult as society is built for a very specific type of person and if you do not fit into that, then it is very hard. I think that the disabled community in Edinburgh has potential, but it needs to grow. There is a foundation of brilliant and engaged disabled students, but we need more.


Is that what your plans for community building will address?

Yes. My committee and I have decided to focus on enabling and supporting societies to run their own individual events. As the Disabled Students Liberation Officer, I have been contacting many societies and having good dialogues with them on Disability History Month. Firstly, it means that my energy is not completely [spent] as we have 15 to 20 events planned within the 30 days of Disability History Month in November. I am pleased with the positive reception, but I am very mindful that it has been from the able-bodied society leaders and people running these events, as I am trying to make sure that disabled voices are included in the conversation. However, it does mean that the work has lessened for disabled people. It means that when we see allyship from able-bodied people, it breaks down barriers so that disabled people can feel more comfortable getting involved with societies who prove themselves as allies. It has been an ongoing dialogue with myself and I have been trying to find a balance.

I am also doing a few speaking engagements. With regards to the model of tackling white supremacy in LGBT+ spaces, Hazel Sanderson and I are doing a similar event relating specifically to disability. We are also doing a panel on gender-based violence as gender-based violence is statistically twice as likely to affect disabled women. I am also doing a talk with Sexpression about sex and disability, slightly touching upon gender-based violence but mainly focusing on misconceptions around how disabled people are either infantilised or hypersexualised and how these tensions work. I know that the History Society and the Edinburgh Political Union are also doing lectures. The History Society lecture will be interdisciplinary while the Edinburgh Political Union said that they would have a lecture that is celebratory of the disabled community. It has been lovely to hear that not only do some of these societies have disabled members on their committees, but also that they were happy that I got in touch with them. Things like that are bringing disabled people into the liberation campaign as well as making able-bodied people not only aware of the struggles of being disabled, but also aware of the incredibly rich and complex history of our social group.

There is also another strand of community building that I have also considered. I want to start a campaign in Semester 2. It was originally going to be an anti-ableism campaign but it diverged from the original plans in my manifesto. Having spoken to my committee and fellow disabled students, it is now going to be a self-identifying campaign that will encourage people to self-identity as disabled, which I think is half the battle. The term ‘disabled’ has been stigmatised historically; it is not a positive term. Personally, when I started to identify as ‘disabled’, it gave me access to resources, to community and to the help that I needed. I started to become part of something and that gave me the emotional resources and mindset to make something of this. I felt so much comfort from the disabled community too. I want other people to self-identify as ‘disabled’ too, because there are so many people who are asking themselves if they even qualify as disabled if they do not have an official diagnosis or benefits or mobility aid or pills. I want to tell people, without forcing an identity onto them, that if they are having this type of conversation in their head, they probably are disabled. It is okay to identify as disabled; they will be welcomed into this community that will do great things for them. I think about the Twitter disabled community where I have learnt so much about my own internalised ableism and the beliefs that I held about myself because of my illness; they have helped me break them down, which has made me a happier person. I want people to be comfortable joining the disabled community. That is the focus of the campaign. For now, we are crossing the Ts and dotting the Is but I think that it may consist of personal videos of people explaining how self-identifying as disabled has helped them.


Will there be any open conversations on cultural barriers, especially concerning people who do not fit normative British or European white society, where coming out as disabled can be harmful?

For sure, I recognise that I am white and cis, and that I do not present as visibly queer; I have privilege which means that I cannot centre myself in that narrative. This is something for me to work on with other people so that I can help uplift their voices and their ideas. It is important to me to centre as many voices as I can from people who do not have the same experience as me, with all the privileges that I have.


I hope that your plans will help with the community building part of your manifesto goals.

Yes, all of this work I hope will get people involved to create a great community. For events, we have DisabiliTea every month. The first one we ran was really lovely. I have three amazing committee members; Mansi, Iona, and Diana are absolutely brilliant. They have been working so closely and so well with me so far. I appreciate all of their inputs and their experiences; it is so great. We are also currently working with the Equality and Diversity Officers and Disabled Students Officers at Edinburgh Napier University, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh College and Heriot-Watt University to plan a mixer in November. We also planned an event with Kayleigh O’Neill, the Equality and Diversity Officer at Napier, called Know Your Rights for disabled students. We will have various charities, disability organisations and legal consultants for discussions about housing rights, employment rights, university rights and rights specific to disabled people. I think that it will be exciting and useful too. I am absolutely buzzing.

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