YUSU commits elections branding U-turn after failure to recognise disabled prejudice


Exclusive Nouse investigation uncovers emails exposing YUSU's lack of awareness to a controversial elections poster

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Image by Ed Halford

By Lucy Cooper and Ed Halford

(Please note: Officer X was happy to be identifiable but did not want to be flagged in a google search).

The former Disability Students’ Officers for YUSU dramatically resigned in an email sent to the Disabled Students’ Network on Friday 14 January, leveling serious allegations towards the Student Union. Victoria Cornford and her fellow Disability Students’ Officer (Officer X), who wishes to remain anonymous*, accused YUSU of 14 failings, with these including a “Lack of Disability training amongst staff” and “Using Disability-hate symbols in marketing and judging it was not inappropriate, despite having no disability training.”

A Nouse investigation has found the student union initially ran the YUSU elections 2022 campaign with puzzle piece branding; a symbol widely recognised by disabled students as connected to Autism Speaks. Officer X emailed a YUSU staff member to warn them that using the symbol could be interpreted as hurtful by members of the disabled community.

Autism Speaks is a controversial autism advocacy organisation which promotes genetic testing and released an extremely offensive “I am Autism” advert in 2009. In this advert autism is compared to working “faster than paediatric aids, cancer and diabetes combined.” The advert proceeded to suggest autistic children “will make sure your marriage fails” and “bankrupt you.” At the time of the advert’s publication, then executive vice president of Autism Speaks Peter Bell said: “We realised it did hurt a certain segment of the population, which is why we removed the video link from our website.”

The branding appeared on the YUSU website and their social media accounts before the former Disabled Students’ Officers spotted it. After making YUSU aware of the branding mistake, Officer X emailed a YUSU staff member on 9 December 2021 demanding an explanation for why YUSU had failed to recognise the puzzle symbol’s association with Autism Speaks, an organisation which Sara Luterman, a disability advocate, told The Washington Post “has actively contributed to the hostility that autistic people face.” They said to the YUSU staff member: “I accept mistakes happen and I am impressed how quickly the material was removed, but I need to make sure that a similar issue cannot happen again, after all the reputational damage to the union would be enormous.”

Officer X’s concerns were heeded, and the symbol was immediately replaced with a lego brick in the posters for YUSU’s election campaign. However, YUSU’s initial failure to subject the logo in their first design to scrutiny through an EIA (Equality Impact Assessment) was acknowledged. Responding to Officer X on the same day by email, the YUSU staff member said: “We are going to pilot the use of the EIA on certain aspects of the election- e.g. the debate and the results night- but we didn’t specifically go through an entire EIA when considering the use of the jigsaw puzzle in the promotion.”

They added: “We discussed potential impacts and perceptions, in a less formal way, and it was decided that the jigsaw puzzle can have multiple meanings and would not be problematic when clearly linked to elections (rather than autism or autistic people).” However, the YUSU elections involve the election of the Disabled Students’ Officer role – directly linking and exposing the entire event to disabled and autistic students.

This was highlighted by the former Disability Officers when offering their feedback, arguing that the symbol can remind disabled students of prejudice and hate towards their community.

The YUSU staff member was keen to emphasise to Officer X in their response that YUSU “reflected” on their concerns “when we received your feedback.” They added: “We do want to formalise our EIA process for policies, projects and events etc, and will work to embed this throughout the coming terms.”

In the email, the staff member put forward the argument for only using EIAs proportionately, as they said: “It’s important to remember though that EIAs have to be proportionate, effective and relevant. “This means that not everything requires an EIA, but it also means that consultation with students and staff needs to be proportionate.”

Despite knowing that the posters would be publicised across the University’s campus, YUSU decided that it wasn’t “proportional” to consult the former Disability Students’ Officers about the ambiguous logo in the posters. Instead, Officer X reached out to YUSU, due to their concerns for YUSU’s reputation and the interests of the University’s disabled community. The Disability Officers’ resignation email to the Disabled Students’ Network also highlighted they were protesting “Decisions to make safeguarding training optional for PTOs (Part-time Officers).”

Currently, PTO Equality and Diversity training is only available to PTOs as an optional module, while both former Disability Students’ Officers informed Nouse that they believe the training should be compulsory instead. In the YUSU staff member’s response to Officer X’s email on 9 December 2021, they said in relation to developing the EIA process that a “Key part of this is upskilling, training and developing staff.” However, if Equality and Diversity training is only optional this raises doubts as to how comprehensive the training on offer is.

The only compulsory modules as part of the Student Leader Online Training include the following: ‘Introduction to YUSU’, ‘Events, Health and Safety’, and ‘Data Protection’. Safeguarding training is especially important for PTOs, otherwise they might not know how to raise safeguarding concerns to protect network members.

The former Disabled Students’ Officers recall several times they were asked to volunteer to consult the Union across a wide range of issues in which they did not have sufficient lived experience or training to adequately do so.

A lack of compulsory training on important topics such as diversity leads to more inaccessibility within the Union, as PTOs will not have experience of every minority. This leaves PTOs and other YUSU staff members without certain skills to ensure minority students are heard and not alienated through mistakes like the jigsaw puzzle branding.

Victoria Cornford told Nouse: “Having been DSO for three years, I am incredibly sad to leave the position. Despite our successes in this time, and even with the hard work of our disabled members, YUSU still has many institutional failings when it comes to disabled students, and meaningful actions have to be taken by YUSU towards supporting disabled students and disabled officers if they wish to be the inclusive organisation they are meant to be.”

Patrick O’Donnell, YUSU President, said:"I would like to provide reassurance that YUSU has listened on these matters, and acknowledged and responded to the specific concerns raised. The Officers rightfully raised these concerns directly with us in November 2021 and, as we discussed with them at the time, our intention was never to cause offence by using a jigsaw image to underpin YUSU’s election campaign.

"The election campaign centres on a “are you the missing piece?” narrative; it was designed to improve and promote diversity and inclusivity, calling for students’ help to ensure their Union is as representative of our community as possible. The context of this is different from the use of a puzzle piece as a symbol of hate. Nonetheless, the Officers’ concerns regarding use of jigsaw-type imagery and connotations with offensive single puzzle piece imagery were welcomed and taken on board when they were raised. As a result, while we had consciously avoided using colouration and patterns associated with hate imagery, we changed the visuals of the campaign to ensure that the branding did not cause any unintentional distress.

"Myself and the sabbatical team are always happy to speak directly with students and Officers should they ever have any questions or concerns. Equality and diversity remains a key priority for the Union, it is an area in which we continue to invest to ensure that we are both listening to and supporting students’ voices and engaging students as genuine partners in YUSU’s work."

If you have been affected by the contents of this article, please reach out for support. See the below two links: opendoor@york.ac.uk disability@yusu.org