unthinking disabilism in higher education

A PhD position became available recently, connected to deafness. I had a look at it, but decided it wasn’t the right sphere for me, that I didn’t have the right skills for it, so I passed it on to our postgrad community in case anyone there fancied it.

I was asked several times why i didn’t go for it, as I’d be perfect for it.

They didn’t say this on the basis that they thought that my skills, knowledge and discipline made me perfect for it.

They said it on the basis that I’m deaf, and it’s a PhD connected to deafness.

This actually made me quite cross, because it is disabilism, pure and simple. it takes no account of me as a person, my skills, and reduces me down to one thing and one thing only: my deafness. And here’s the thing – they didn’t even see that it was ablist, that it was prejudice. It wasn’t malicious in any way – I suspect they’d be dreadfully upset if they ever read this, that they had inadvertently been so prejudiced – but … fact remains that that is exactly what they’ve done.

Imagine suggesting to a black person that they’d be perfect for a PhD examining skin colour in some way? Or a woman that they’d be ideal to study the effects of oestrogen? Or a transgendered lesbian that they should study the impact of sexuality in transgendered people? Or a Catholic that they should study the troubles in Ireland?

It would be very frowned upon, of course, all of these. People would – quite rightly – be upset and disgusted.

So why should it be acceptable to suggest that someone should do a PhD incorporating deafness purely on the basis of their disability?

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not by any means suggesting that people should not do those things. That the black person shouldn’t study skin colour, that the woman shouldn’t study the effects of oestrogen, and so on. If they CHOOSE to do so, that’s up to them. It’s a matter of choice.

I don’t choose to study deafness. I feel that for me it is the obvious route and that I want to study something totally unconnected to my deafness. That is my choice, and I have a right to make it. If others want to study something connected to their deafness, then that is their choice, and I support and applaud their right to make that choice.

But for me, or anyone, to be encouraged to study a field purely on the basis of their ‘label’ – be it gender, skin colour, religion, sexuality, – or, yes, disability – is just wrong. It suggests that they aren’t capable of more. That we should stay within our sphere, because that’s where we belong.

And that makes me very, very angry.

I’m much more than just my ears. much, much more. I should be free to study as I wish, to the best of my own skills and capability (which is very capable), just as anyone who is hearing is permitted to do.

It makes me very, very sad.

It makes me realise that there is still far too much work to do to educate people, even people in higher education settings. Rightly or wrongly, I expect more from them (and these suggestions came from other PhD students, not members of staff). It makes me sad that these intelligent people can’t see further than their own experience, their own privileged life.

It makes me very, very determined.

If nothing else, it makes me more determined not to go the ‘deaf’ route, to opt for studying deafness in my field in some way. I’m happy to facilitate education for others, to aid with deaf awareness etc. But I want to study what I will be studying, and my path will not change.

It makes me determined to do my bit to educate other people. It makes me determined to make the institution realise that they are failing their staff and students in not providing disability awareness. It needs to change – and it will change.

BADD – Disabilism in Higher Education

BADD - with a sneaked in deaf symbol

BADD – with a sneaked in deaf symbol. thought it was about time I did this.

As I said earlier, today is Blogging against Disabilism Day, and I have yet to offer up my sacrifice to the gods of the day (no, the one earlier doesn’t count). I’m meant to be doing my final essay of the year, but seeing as I’m done reading through all the research material, and my brain has now all the power of an almost empty whoopiee cushion …. I’m turning to BADD. And since I don’t want to read anyone else’s till I’ve done my offering (if I do that, I’ll just throw up my hands in despair) … I’d best crack on.

I wanted, here, to give a kind of overview of my experiences to date, in terms of disabilism – or encouragement – in education. To give a short description of my educational career so far: I returned to education, via a further education college and a diploma in 2010. In 2011 I started my undergrad degree, graduating last year, and am now doing a Masters degree. So far, so good. So what have been my experiences so far?

The university as a whole has been fantastic. I’ve talked with some of my interpreters about my time there and they have confirmed that largely, the university has been pretty good, in comparison to some of the other educational establishments that they’ve worked in. The disabled support unit for students has been supportive as well, after a rocky start. They initially seemed incapable of understanding the importance of full and comprehensive notes, as comprehensive as they could be, and I got through a few notetakers in my first year before I found people that did the job that I needed and then I simply requested them throughout. I sorted out interpreters myself; mostly because, again, I knew who I wanted and would work to achieve that. I also wanted and strived to maintain continuity for a module in my support team: that’s important. Again, initially, I think there was a bit of mistrust on their side: largely because they’d never had anyone like me before coming in with very clear ideas about what they needed and wanted and was prepared to take on extra admin in order to get it. [I think to a certain extent, my time at the Further Education college had spoiled me, as I’d been given VERY high quality provision there].

From my lecturers, I’ve largely had nothing but support, with one exception (more about that in a minute). My current lecturers, (two of whom I know well and the third is working on getting to know me!), take their time to talk to me (even when there’s an interpreter present, unless its in a class setting, and then they talk to me about as much as they do everyone else). Some handle it better than others – I’d say about as well as the average social cohort of hearing people might, some better, some worse. I think it helps that in every case throughout my undergraduate degree, at the beginning of a module, I would email the lecturer or seminar leader, introduce myself, explain my capabilities, what I would be showing up with (an interpreter and notetaker) and what my requirements were from them. Later in my degree that worked very well: I encountered the most problems in my second year when we were being spoken to by a different lecturer every week in that lecture series – I simply did not have time to email every single one, and most of the time I had no idea who it would be beforehand anyway.

The exception is a lecturer I have had ongoing problems with – and I have since learned seems to have problems with specific individuals (he regards people like marmite – he either loves you or hates you). In my case, we were going through an oral assessment and the rules of the assessment conflicted, hugely, with my requirements as a disabled person. Said lecturer stuck to his guns, being fairly rude in the process, and we had no real choice but to continue the assessment regardless (because of the presence of other students). What was even more stunning was the fact that the lecturer was meant to be the representative of the school when it came to disability issues – which and they displayed an astounding lack of knowledge about on that day. To the university’s credit, the lecturer was hauled over the coals and they put measures in place to ensure it would never happen again.

In terms of my fellow students: I’ve had a few comments. Most people have been friendly enough in class, but don’t seem to have wanted to socialise with me outside of class. The trouble is, I don’t know whether that’s because I’m deaf, or that I’m a mature student. I really can understand that a lot of them don’t want an old fart hanging around when they’re being sick outside nightclubs [what they may not get is that that’s mutual!]. But as a mature student, I have my own friends and life outside of university which means that having a university social life isn’t quite as important. There are people who are becoming friends, who look past the deafness and the bit of plastic on the back of my ear to see ME – and I’m incredibly grateful for them. Just wish more people could get past the awkwardness and just talk to me.

Outside of the University, I’ve struggled with disabilism from Student Finance England, who oversee DSA (Disabled Student’s Allowance, that pays for technical or personal help for disabled students). At postgrad level there are a whole range of seminars that are available to go to, done on a voluntary basis, and as part of various societies. These seminars are presented by people who are experts in their fields and its a really nice way to get outside of your own narrow focus and to widen your perspective for an hour, to keep your knowledge of other parts of your general field current. Attendance at a few of these throughout the academic year is advised, especially if you want to progress to PhD level (as I do).

Will SFE pay for it as part of DSA? No.

I understand their reasoning: if they cover this, then they could get into a situation where they have to cover support for people wanting to go on a cookery society, or a pub crawl, something that, really, doing this is not going to affect your degree grade. But this is very much a grey area. Some of the seminars are more critical to the acid test of whether attendance/non-attendance would affect my final degree grade, and although all my lecturers wrote (bless ’em) supporting letters saying that attendance at these seminars was critical to a fuller understanding and development of my wider knowledge of the field, SFE wouldn’t budge. In the end the university paid for them, but only those ones. Their budget is finite, and there are other seminars that I would love to go to, ones that are run by fellow postgraduates, (and that I blogged about in my second post, Networking) and that are really important for developing good working relationships with people that ultimately, I may be working with in my career. I get really angry at SFE, at their inflexibility to cover things like this, even a two part course that I went on to learn how to use some computer software that would be incredibly useful for the module I did before Christmas … they would not cover. Its not compulsory. And again, the university covered that.

I know that I’m a conscientious student: I work hard, I get good marks, I show up to almost every class, without fail (in fact, one of my current lecturers said something to this effect in my second year; that they love me because they know in me, they have at least one attentive student to teach at the end of term!). That makes it very easy to support me – sort of, the deserving disabled. I do wonder, sometimes, if the university would be as supportive if I wasn’t bringing in such high marks, if I had struggled even to pass and had graduated with a third class degree (instead of the first I actually got). It brings to mind the discussions that have been held over the last 400 years or so. How do you seperate the deserving from the undeserving? In the past, it was the deserving poor, not the deserving disabled – although the disabled was definitely seen as a subsection of the deserving poor. Do you treat them all as equal? Difficult questions – and ones that are particularly pertinent to society today, still, and especially pertinent given the upcoming election and the fact that next week is deaf awareness week.

I think I want to round this off on a positive note. What would I like to see for the future? Funding for those grey areas would be a good start. SFE needs to recognise that a university education is about more than just the compulsory classes; it’s about the whole expansion of the mind, of experiences, of learning who you are. Cut that short and you turn out a half-assed graduate. I’d like to see universities themselves being given bigger budgets for communication support of all kinds. I’d like disability awareness training to be a compulsory part of fresher’s week – hell, I’d like disability awareness training to be a compulsory part of schooling, period, delivered in age-appropriate ways at various points through school – this could easily be delivered as part of a wider civil skills module, perhaps, so that they learn about racism, gender politics, local politics, national politics, and critical thinking. That last is the key: to question the papers, what they read, and to think for themselves. I am a big believer in education. You might have heard the old saying: Give a man a tin of beans, and he’s fed for a day. Give him a bag of beans (seeds), he’d be fed for a lifetime. Or something similar. It varies. For me, education is the bag of beans.