We live in a society that is deeply, distinctly, institutionally ableist.
To many able-bodied or neurotypical people, this canker of ableism seems hidden beneath the surface: they don’t have to think about it, so they will not notice. It is not callousness, or a lack of care necessarily, just a learned ignorance. They don’t notice if the buildings they are in aren’t accessible, or if the autism jokes they make perpetrate damaging stereotypes, or if the person they are mocking is disabled.
Growing up with my older cousin Florence, who has Down’s Syndrome, the respect and normal treatment due to people with disabilities was unquestioned, obviously.
Of course, I am not arguing that one needs to grow up around disability to not be ableist, but having these experiences have led me to be stunned by the way many people act around disability. People who would be shocked to see themselves accused of ableism, will still throw around slurs like ‘m*ng’, or publicly laugh at those with intellectual disabilities trying to navigate the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought ableism to the surface in a horrifying and dangerous way, showing how much disabled people have to fight, not only for their right to access society in the same way as everyone else, but also to simply be able to live.
When the COVID crisis hit, disabled people were at the bottom of the priority list. In care homes and supported housing, perfectly healthy residents with learning disabilities were labelled ‘do not resuscitate’ without their consent. Rhetoric in the media and by politicians of “who to save” ran the gamut from ableist to almost eugenicist. And the mass resistance of many young people over wearing masks because “they weren’t around old people”, ignorant of the many young people with hidden disabilities, suggested a prioritisation of convenience over human life.
Seeing the amount of personal and institutional barriers that are put up against disabled people just trying to live in society, it is beyond clear that something needs to change.
Education is key- but from the right places.
Listen to disabled voices first, not necessarily those of their families or carers or organisations that claim to speak on their behalf- because it is only people with disabilities that best know the challenges they face and the support they need.
Allies must also advocate for wider institutional and social change, and for students, there is one easy place to start: the university.
As the rest of this issue will hopefully show, life for disabled students at the university is not easy, and it is all of our responsibility to advocate not for them, but alongside them.