Self-definition is a barrier to ensuring true understanding

Barring those who do not self-define as disabled from running for Disability Officer must not continue

Self-definition has serious implications on social relationships. By describing how you want others to view you, it prescribes a judgement to the way in which you allow people to analyse your character. It gives others an opportunity to form a bias, and certain words come with stigmas attached which can be both upsetting and politically incorrect.

However, in a recent UGM motion, a student wished to change the YUSU constitution so that we wouldn’t have to self-define as disabled in order to run for YUSU Disability Officer. Some have objected to the motion, saying that non-disabled people won’t understand the emotional and physical issues or constraints behind being disabled.

This is not necessarily true. It is within the human condition for most people (and it should be hoped that an individual wouldn’t run as a joke candidate for a position concerning sensitive and personal issues) to empathise with others, particularly when they are in what is generally viewed to be a disadvantaged position.

Empathy provided us with this particular UGM motion

Empathy provided us with this particular UGM motion, not sympathy. The difference between the two mindsets is that one provides compassion, whereas the other provides only a condescension and degradation of the group in question.

Amy McKessy, who proposed the motion, said that it “segregates rather than integrates” disabled from non-disabled people. Self-definition, rather than destroying barriers, creates them. It allows stereotyping to become socially acceptable, and in so doing, creates a valid excuse for being harsh and prejudiced. It imposes characteristics on an individual, and even though those qualities are self-inflicted, sometimes unforeseen consequences arise which inadvertently plunge the person into various negative associations.

We must recognise that there is the capacity for a distinct lack of understanding (as seen by the joke candidates running for Women’s Officer this year), and it is a shame that the UGM motion did not reach quoracy. It has therefore been neither passed or rejected, because not enough people voted on it. Empathy is a fantastic virtue to hold, enabling understanding and friendships to develop, and it can only be to our own detriment if we do not allow this to be expressed within student democracy.


  1. “The difference between the two mindsets is that one provides compassion, whereas the other provides only a condescension and degradation of the group in question.”

    That’s not true Camilla. The definition of empathy is being able to understand what someone is going through and feeling, because you yourself have gone through and felt the same things. If you are not disabled then you can’t be empathetic with those who are, you can only be sympathetic. Which I might add is not a bad thing and doesn’t need to be condescending.

    What this UGM motion was arguing was that only being able to be sympathetic is enough to be the Diasbled Officer and that position doesn’t necessary need someone who can empathise with disabled students.

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  2. “The definition of empathy is being able to understand what someone is going through and feeling, because you yourself have gone through and felt the same things. If you are not disabled then you can’t be empathetic with those who are, you can only be sympathetic.”

    That’s your definition of empathy, Jamie. Princeton’s Wordnet simply defines empathy as “understanding and entering into another’s feelings” while the all-knowing Wikipedia defines it as “the capability to share your feelings and understand another’s emotion and feelings … the ability to ‘put oneself into another’s shoes’ or in some way experience what the other person is feeling.

    I could not find any definition of empathy that either explicitly or implicitly requires personal experience of a particular situation.

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  3. Jamie, I’ve just read your response to the article/comment, and to be honest I’m insulted at the lack of understanding you have for the word ’empathy’. Empathy in no way means sympathy and shouldn’t be misinterpreted this way. Empathy is about understanding, not knowing. You do not have to share the same experience as someone to be able to understand it, or see it from their point of view.

    The UGM motion I put forward was not stating that sympathy is the role of the Disability Officer – patronising much? The UGM motion was put forward because the constitution as it is at the moment is not equal or inclusive. The position should be held be someone who is passionate about working with and helping people and someone willing to understand isssues with a sensitive and respectful manner.

    Please understand the motion before you make incorrect assumptions.

    Try and empathise with why I put it forward.

    Lastly, thank you George for your response and Camilla for your comment in response to Victoria’s article which I think was very true to the concept of the actual motion.

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  4. Amy, the UGM motion was put foreward because you, amongst others, believe the constitution to not be equal inclusive. Though it’s certainly a worthwhile debate, the pervasiveness of self-definition as a pre-requisite to membership of liberation campaigns within and beyond YUSU, and the defence of that criterion when it comes under attack suggests that it’s not so clear cut.

    Not identifying as disabled myself, I was in two minds as to whether or not to vote against the motion, but the fact that the speech and coverage mentioned Women’s and LGBT committee too put me at ease. The involvement of allies in all campaigns is helpful, and having someone to fill the position is arguably better than having no-one at all. However, having someone without that background and those experience does have an impact on the nature of the role and the way that it’s approached.

    Your response to Jamie aside, nothing suggests to me (caveat, I don’t define into that demographic) that you couldn’t be entirely capable of performing the role. However, having in the past been made to feel very uncomfortable and disenfranchised by completely well-meaning allies in LGBT campaigns, I’m wary of throwing open the coordination of liberation campaigns to those in the position of privelege that the campaign’s members can only aspire to.

    In short, my wariness isn’t about you doing a good job – it’s about throwing the otherwise extremely helpful and empowering concepts of self-definition and self-organisation out with the bathwater when they’re working well in other campaigns.

    Perhaps you could work through your concerns with Women’s & LGBT committee and try to understand why that requirement *is* useful to some people? It’d certainly be a helpful step for people such as myself who didn’t feel they could vote in favour of the motion because of the mention of Women’s and LGBT and the potential associated damage to the legitimacy of other groups constituted around a requirement of self-definition.

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  5. Amy, I get the impression you’ve interpreted what I wrote in a different way from I how I meant it to come across. I wasn’t passing judgment on whether I thought your motion was good or bad and I apologise for making such a sweeping statement about it without thinking about what you personally meant by it, it was wrong of me to do so. Am I right in saying that the reason for you writing this motion is because you don’t think having the experience of being disabled is a necessary requirement for someone to have in order for them to campaign well and capably on behalf of disabled students? Because if so that’s what I meant by my last statement and how I interpreted your motion.

    In my comment I was taking issue with the way the terms empathy and sympathy were being used in Camilla’s piece. George responded to my comment by giving some definitions of empathy he found on the web. And I agree with them and at the same time don’t think they contradict my definition of the word.

    You said “Empathy is about understanding, not knowing.” But I think empathy is about knowing. All of George’s definitions talk about experiencing or understanding the emotions of someone else which surely means actually having felt the same emotions as that person yourself for how else can you understand what it feels like. I wasn’t saying that in order to empathise with a blind person you too need to be blind but I do think that in order for you to empathise you yourself need to have a disability because then you can understand the emotions that person is having because you too have felt them albeit maybe not to the same extent.

    You may argue that non-disabled people will have had experiences in their lives which elicit the same feelings of worry and anxiety disabled people sometimes feel about their condition and that they can therefore empathise with them. But as someone who doesn’t have a disability I personally feel uncomfortable equating any emotional experiences I’ve had with what it’s like to be disabled as I simply don’t know what being disabled would cause me to feel. I can sympathise and understand the problems they have and work with them to try and fix them but I can’t empathise.

    I don’t wish to suggest parity between these two groups but I am a gay man and I know that the feelings I had about coming to terms with my sexuality and the emotional struggle I had with coming out to my parents were unique emotional experiences in my life; I have never experienced anything else emotionally comparable in my life and so I don’t think anyone else could know what that feels like unless they too were gay. I couldn’t expect my straight friends to know it and therefore don’t think they can empathise with me about it. What they can absolutely do and did is sympathise with what I was going through and support me.

    Is your issue mainly with the word sympathy, because you seem to attach an extremely negative stigma to the word that I don’t? Why is it patronising to have sympathy for disabled people and be sympathetic to their cause?

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  6. Jamie, I’m sorry if I’ve didn’t understand what you were trying to say the first time round, so I apologise if my reaction came across as blunt. In response to your last sentence, I personally believe it’s patronising to have sympathy in the sense I believe you’re describing it as because it would come across as pity. Why should you have to ‘feel sorry’ for someone, which is a basic meaning of sympathy, surely that’s degrading? They’re a person not an object of pity. Would you feel it was appropriate for someone to sympathise for you because of your sexuality, to ‘feel sorry’ for you because you are gay? Because, I surely wouldn’t want someone to do that to me.

    I think one of my big issues with this topic is that if I had a physical disability, how would that make me suitable to understand and relate to someone who had a learning disability. It’s hard to say that because a person has one disability that they can understand any other disability. For example, I hope you don’t mind me using this, as a gay man, would you feel comfortable saying you understood issues relating to a lesbian or bisexual person or a trans person? Do you not think it’s discriminatory to tell me I am not allowed to run for a position because I’m not disabled?

    Another big issue I have, if at by-elections nobody runs for the position then it will be empty for a whole year, someone please tell me how that is better than choosing an officer based on what they have to offer?

    Also if this position is empty, who do you think will take on the main responsibilities? I imagine the new Welfare Officer. Now I don’t know if Laura Bo has a disability and I’m not asking to find out as that might be something personal to a person, but if this whole self-definition is as important and crucial as is being made out, what qualifies the Welfare Officer to take this role if they are not disabled?

    Emma – which speech mentioned LGBT and women’s officer because I can’t recall my UGM speech doing so? In regards to women’s officer, two males ran for it this year who obviously don’t see themselves as women but ran as a joke. There are people out there who care about issues such as disability, or LGBT or even women’s issues, and might not class themselves under the self-definition rule. Who is to say they can’t be passionate about something and do a good job unless they are able to be given a chance. The men that ran for women’s officer didn’t win because the student body chose the other candidates and because they weren’t serious. Overall it should be the students who get to decide on the people they want to represent them out of the candidates in question.

    Emma, you obviously feel strongly about Women’s committee and LGBT as you keep mentioning them, although they were never mentioned in my speech or by me. The UGM I put forward was to change the rules regarding the Disability Officer. Is it hypocritical for me to say I want to change one thing and not everything else? Of course it is. I want to see elections and voting fairer, and at the moment I cannot agree with anyone who thinks it is fair, because it’s plain that it isn’t. There should be equality for everyone to take part in whatever they want to run for or join.

    All these groups want to fight for issues, promote equality and stop oppression, so why prevent people from being part of this because they don’t fit your label?

    I have a feeling this issue will not go away, and the people who disagree with it cannot be persuaded by what I say, and that I don’t mind because everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

    So I guess I’ll check back for your response…

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  7. Amy: Sorry, I’d seen a reference to the other liberation campaigns somewhere – it may have been in Charlie’s speech. Apologies for misrepresenting you. It’d be massively helpful if UGM motions stayed online after voting even if they didn’t pass so that people didn’t have to work on them from memory :-/

    More considered response perhaps coming later, just wanted to clear that one up.

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  8. I definitely see Jamie’s point: as a non-disabled person I would too feel uncomfortable insinuating that I am equipped to understand, empathise and represent the sensitive and divergent needs of disabled students. On the flipside, to take the LGBT analogy further, I – as another gay student – would be fairly infuriated if the only welfare representative available for advice on LGBT issues were a straight girl/guy. And in this example, I’m not sure I’d personally agree that someone filling the post was better than no one: there are just some experiences that not everyone can understand in the same way (no matter how much they sympathise or empathise) and it can be condescending for someone who is not gay or not disabled – or whatever – to suggest that they ‘know what it’s like’ to be any of the above. I wholeheartedly encourage those decent non self-defining people who wish to fight the corner of minorities, but just not in their seeking to obtain welfare positions such as disabled, LGBT, or womens officer (and surely, the latter example in the recent elections exemplifies the dangers of opening welfare positions up to those who don’t self-define). I fundamentally don’t agree with the idea that self-definition doesn’t have a huge bearing on someone’s ability to do the job. And I secondly don’t agree that abandoning self-definition in these roles will encourage integration; conversely, I would argue that it may even create resentment as the needs of the group in question aren’t perceived and met effectively.

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  9. I don’t think the position is always about sitting there and saying ‘I know what it’s like to be you and know what you’re going through’ because it’s not about you it’s about the people you’re working with and your experience of a situation might not be the same as another person’s.

    However, personal experiences can be helpful and are valid when working with a certain group. Does this mean that people who are carers do not understand the needs of people with disabilities or aren’t able to relate to and share certain experiences? Because, I’ve met a lot of carers who have been through an experience with a family memeber (who have a disability) and who have had to fight social services and health care professionals for what they believe to be the answers to their problems. I have myself been a carer for a member of my family who was classed as disabled (a disability which had only occurred at this stage in their life), and I can say I understand their experience because I was part of it. I’m not saying ‘I know’ because I can’t possibly imagine what they were truly thinking and feeling, but I understand. I’ve also been a support worker and a PA for people with learning disabilities and have worked closely on a one-to-one basis with them. I’ve been part of multi-disciplinary meetings and teams where I’ve helped put across their views and their issues so their needs can be met in the best possible way by all people involved. I’m currently on a placement working with a self-advocate organisation with people with learning (and possibly physical) disabilities, where I’m learning more about the true involvement of people with disabilities and the services in which they are apart of.

    If all of this should be disregarded then I think people are looking for the wrong type of candidate. I cannot change the fact that I do not class myself as disabled, and I wish people could look beyond this and see that other people (like myself) who want this position should be taken seriously and not held back because of something they physically can’t change about themselves.

    In response to the last comment.. How do you feel about the Welfare Officer taking on the role and responsibilities of the Disability Officer if they are not self-defined as disabled (for example)? How does this change anything? If this is the case, surely self-definition can’t be the most important aspect of this role? If no one ran for LGBT or Women’s, the Welfare Officer (I imagine) would probably take on most of this role, what if they weren’t L, G, B or T or not a woman?

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  10. As I said, experience is essential – I would consider someone who has worked with disabled people, or lived with disabled family members, as having experience. We must bear in mind, however, that opening the position up to any non-disabled person in no way ensures that the candidate will have any experience. Just as we’ve seen with the guys who ran for women’s officer, some candidates will just be wanting to taking the piss out of welfare positions. So despite your wealth of valuable experiences Amy, you could still potentially lose out to someone who is running anarchically, or to someone because they’re dressed as a pirate, or to RON out of pure perversity. York students are fickle: maybe only letting self-defining candidates run is the only way to circumvent these outcomes?

    But ultimately, I believe that these roles are best filled by people who self-define. Consequently, in answer to you last question ‘how do I feel about the WO taking on the role of Disability Officer’? Well, to be honest, I don’t feel a whole lot because this doesn’t affect me and I would be interested to know how the disabled students feel about it. If the LGBT or Women’s officer positions were handed over to the WO and they didn’t self-define as either feminist or LGBT, I certainly wouldn’t be seeking their advice or guidance on these matters. Fortunately this is unlikely to happen due to the high levels of activism within the feminist and LGBT communities at York, which surely begs the question: why aren’t disabled students filling this role themselves, why would it need to be handed over to a Welfare Officer?

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  11. I didn’t realise Women’s Officer was all about feminism, I thought it was about welfare and equality, so I don’t think the right message is coming across if you are calling it feminist society. I also don’t think the Women’s Officers or committee would appreciate your use of language in relation to their position or community.

    If you don’t feel a whole lot about the WO taking on the role of Disability Officer I’m not sure where you are going with your argument, because my main argument so far is that I want to change the self-definition for the Disability Officer. That was the UGM I put forward and I intend on doing so again. If people want to continue to mention LGBT or Women’s (as they are obviously the only other two committees people are bringing up) then that’s up to you, but I don’t want to feel as if I have to keep defending my original motion by being forced to talk about and defend other self-defining positions.

    I completely understand that a person from a specific group (whether it be disability or LGBT etc) can be seen to represent a group because they fit that label. What if a person with a disability ran for this position, but had no experience of working with disabilities or empowering people with disabilities and all the other work involved, how does this make them a better candidate? You need a person who is interested in the position and has an idea of what they are talking about. If people aren’t stepping up for this position it’s because they probably aren’t interested in running. Why stop people who do care (whether they have a disability or not) and want the position?

    It would be handed over to the Welfare Officer because the position remained empty, it’s happened before now, but not just for this position, for others too. This isn’t fair on the WO who already has a lot of work to do, and it isn’t beneficial for the student body because they didn’t have a choice on who represents them and their needs probably won’t be met as well as they could have been by an individual candidate focusing on Disability issues.

    I believe if UGMs were more known to the students then this motion would have passed. I know what the results were and regardless of it not receiving the 298 votes overall (for, against, abstain) it received more than double the votes for than it did against. So in that respect it is worth trying to get it passed.

    This UGM will be resubmitted.

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  12. 23 Mar ’10 at 8:59 pm

    Chris AKA Anastasia

    I agree with Anon that disabled should be asked what they want and how they want to be supported, it is all about choice and being in control of the decisions they make. In ideal world the university would look into why no disabled students ran for the post.

    “People who have impairments are a part of the normal diversity of the population and as such should be taken into account in all areas of life. It is because society does not recognise people with impairments as a normal part of the population that they are excluded and discriminated against – that is, they are disabled by this situation.

    If society were to fully take account of people with impairments there would be no need for ‘special’ and segregated facilities in employment, education, transport, housing or any other area. In using the social model of disability Breakthrough UK Ltd does not use any form of segregated provision and promotes an approach that removes disabling barriers to mainstream life.” Breakthrough UK.

    Just to point out that Breakthrough UK is 70% run by disabled people and all those that work at (or are involved) with Breakthrough have the same objectives, to remove the barriers in society that are faced on a daily basis by disabled people.

    Amy is passionate about working alongside disabled people and being a part of empowering them to live independently as well as make their own choices and be in control of their lives.

    I have only based my comments on the articles and the comments of others.

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  13. 23 Mar ’10 at 9:01 pm

    Chris AKA Anastasia

    Hi sorry for my grammar first line should say “I agree with Anon that disabled people” It’s been a long day!!!

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  14. Amy – the fact that you continue to find yourself defending your original motion, doing it largely alone (your hoards of supporters are not exactly forthcoming on these comments), and doing it after the motion has already failed to suceed surely tells you something. It suggests to me that this issue isn’t important to the majority of students, that they don’t want it. What is clear, is that you want it. It’s no good saying that ‘oh if only UGMs were more known to the students it would have passed’; students know this information is available to them, but there’s such general apathy that few are interested. When the student body really feels a conviction about something, believe me, they vote. I seriously commend your activism – it’s nice to see someone passionate about their beliefs – but either people don’t care about this, or there is no real issue to warrant a motion (or both). The result is the same: this motion is unnecessary.

    NB: I hardly think that the Women’s Officer or Women’s Committee will have any problems being affiliated with the term ‘feminism’. Conversely, one of the key points in the manifesto of the newly elected Women’s Officers, if I remember correctly, was to tackle the stigma attached to the word (a stigma that you seem to subscribe to in interpreting it pejoratively). I’d suggest that discussing or promoting the ‘welfare and equality’ *of women* is a fairly textbook definition of feminism.

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  15. Maybe you’re right, maybe the people reading and commenting aren’t interested in the motion and they don’t want it. Maybe the people who are interested just haven’t read the debate I’ve been having with you for the last few days. Who knows.

    Of course the issue probably isn’t important to the majority of students because only 8-10% of students have a disability within university. Which constitutes a minority if my understanding is correct.

    UGMs aren’t that well known to all students. I never heard of them until I was submitting one. A lot of the students I spoke to had no clue what one was or what it meant. Some students weren’t even aware there were elections going on.

    Once again I disagree with you about UGMs. A lot of good motions didn’t reach quoracy which shows enough students aren’t voting, mainly because they don’t know about them. A motion for LGBT to have a vice chair didn’t have enough votes, neither did a volunteering motion or a motion proposed by Claire Cornock (the current Disability Officer). Claire also seconded my motion and did a supporting speech in favour of my motion at the last UGM.

    The motion is not unnecessary in any respect what so ever.

    I do have however, have to say that my misunderstanding of the Women’s Officer position is evident in my previous comment. I never realised the position centred on feminism. This was clarified by the newly elected Officers after I emailed them this morning to ask their take on feminism. So in that respect I apologise for saying they would possibly mind the word feminism (because they don’t) in your previous context. I misunderstood it to be in a negative context.

    Lastly, there are people who do not care about this motion. You come across as one of them. I’m glad you have acknowledged my passion about this motion and can hopefully see my determination to get it passed. Something I know, you do not agree with. Unfortunately this isn’t something we are going to see eye-to-eye on.

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