Katya Macmillen, this year’s Disabled Student’s Officer, interviewed with The Student as Disability History Month draws to a close.
1) What are some of the events that you held for Disability History Month? And what are your projects beyond that?
Covid means I haven’t been able to fulfill much of my manifesto. However, I’m running a campaign related to my manifesto called ‘NotAlldisabilitiesAreVisible’ which will run throughout the rest of the year, not just during Disability History Month.
We’re currently editing the photos with headlines for students who participated to promote their perspective of being a disabled student at the university. We’re compiling these into a photo exhibition online.
I’m also creating a resource guide to go on the EUSA website for disabled students, including students who don’t identify as disabled, but have had a history of mental health or physical health issues, or are having a tough time because of Covid.
I’m trying to also do Counselling Service reform. I meet with the Wellness Centre, which includes the Disabilities Service and the Counselling Service. I do my best to present the complaints that students have about the Counselling Service to people running it. Currently the waiting lists are too long, people have very few sessions, and aren’t prioritised – there’s no compartmentalisation to the service which means people get the help that they deserve. This has proven to be quite difficult and something that’s going to take the whole year because it’s very bureaucratic, and I’m only one 20 year old student trying to make change.
Currently we’re also working on trying to grant cards from the Scottish government to pay for people who can’t wear masks. Different groups of people can’t wear masks during the pandemic because of certain conditions that they deal with, but people accost you if you’re not wearing a mask. Sometimes it’s very uncomfortable to stand up for yourself, especially if there’s stigma around looking disabled or not, so we’re trying to grant students at the uni who can’t wear masks these cards which can act as official documents to show.
Plus, we’re trying to set up training for Personal Tutors and student support officers in terms of mental health and accessibility training because they do need extra education and training to keep up with students’ demands.
After all, we’re having a mental health crisis at the moment due to the pandemic and reasons prior. We might also facilitate health training for students who want to learn First Aid or Mental Health Awareness training and Suicide Prevention training. We’re trying to find a way to offer these accessibly to students in the next semester.
2) What improvements could be made by the university for disabled students?
I talk to the estates department so that they have feedback from disabled people and people with accessibility needs. This is because there’s not much conversation between students and estates, and estates ends up doing what they think suits best.
As for academics, I don’t think a one-week extension is flexible – what if you’re sick for longer than a week, if you have something chronic, if you have a disability but the disabilities service is not suffice?
For special circumstances, you have to provide lots of evidence, but there’s obstacles you have to overcome: sometimes you get rejected, and sometimes doctors can’t provide the evidence you need. A lot of the bureaucracy has to change because I know some e people don’t bother with Special Circumstance or extension request forms because they’re too complicated, inaccessible or scary, which means they do overwhelmingly worse than their peers. The plan is to change the process so that you don’t need to provide medical evidence.
With the student disabilities service, they have a specific set of criteria to qualify which is exclusionary, which the university can work on. Obviously, I can talk forever about the counselling service. It is difficult for everyone and I think there’s a culture of silent ableism not just in the university, but everywhere. That’s something that has to be addressed because I think it’s very easy, common, and tolerated to make very ableist remarks and I think that’s something that has to change especially during this time when everyone’s finding things a lot more difficult.
3) How do you ensure the space is inclusive to everyone (e.g. Black disabled students and/or trans disabled students)?
How do you ensure you address as many kinds of disabilities as possible?
It’s difficult to cater to everyone because there’s much breadth and experience in the disabled community, so It’s really difficult to represent everyone . I’m one person with one set of disabilities but another disabled person would have completely different experiences to me.
We ask disabled people to specify their disability when they self-identify as disabled on forms. The results show that most people state mental health or autism spectrum disorder as their disability. So it seems mental health is a big priority for students that needs to be at the forefront which we try to address. Education’s a big thing for this, and I think the NotAllDisabilitiesareVisible campaign shed a light on that. People assume that being disabled LOOKS a certain way, but that isn’t the case with a lot of people and I think the conversation’s opening up which is good.
I wish we had more overlap [with other liberation campaigns] because I think intersectionality is important and we could do more. I and Ayanda, the BME officer, are doing a collaboration with counselling and therapy in mental health for BME students because there’s a particular experience that BME students face that isn’t the same for other people.
I feel like with the Disabled Student Campaign, it’s a bit of a lonely spot especially because there isn’t a lot of pride, there’s a lot more stigma with self-identifying as disabled.
The disabilities I have there’s very little pride – I don’t hear epilepsy pride, so it’s a little bit different to other campaigns where people are proud to be a woman, proud to be Black, proud to be bisexual etc.
People also get confused – why is mental illness considered a disability? I’m not entirely happy with the title, ‘mentally ill’ which I think is misleading, and language does matter and if people are scared to identify with a label, they’re not going to benefit by identifying as such.
When I was doing my election campaigning in March, I had people who I’m friends with be like ‘you’re not disabled, why are you running for that position’ which is something that I had to reconcile with. I don’t ‘look’ disabled in any way, so people are going to question it.
You know how on the elevator it says ‘only people with disabilities are allowed to use this’ so I use it, but the people who work at the library say ‘you’re not allowed to use it’ and when I clarify I’m disabled, they’re like ‘really?’ That kind of resistance is something that’s difficult to overcome. That’s my experience.
4) Any other things you want to mention?
The disabled community isn’t just those who fit the general public’s perception of a disabled person. A lot of people suffer very silently with mental health or physical health issues, they don’t know where to go and there’s a big loneliness in that.
Even though there’s a lot of stigma surrounding this community and the label around it, it’s a welcoming place and a place for everyone.
If you’re struggling don’t hesitate to join or reach out because it’s an especially difficult time for everyone.
Image: Eve Miller