The A word: why we shouldn't shy away from it


Ableism is a form of discrimination that is prevalent, but it's often forgotten about in universities

Article Image

Image by Chongkian

By Lizzie Knowles

Disabled people are known within inclusivity and diversity discourse as “the forgotten minority”. This is relatively easy to demonstrate: next time you hear anyone listing minority groups (for example in class or on the news), count the number of times disability is omitted from that list.

It is not our bodies that disable us but instead a society that has been constructed to systemically exclude and discriminate against people with disabilities through centring solely able-bodied needs.

Ableism is discrimination in favour of able-bodied people. Inclusivity strengthens with practice and use. As we are very much still in the infancy stages of acknowledging the discrimination against disabled people, allyship will require an intentional effort to re-learn how we perceive the world. Using the word ableism actively, as with muscles, will engage it more instinctively, more effectively, more confidently and more powerfully. We don’t expect our muscles to strengthen through merely coincidental use – we actively seek out time and opportunity to train them. This must be the approach to combating ableism. This is why I want students to use the A word.

As a student with multiple disabilities, ableism is prevalent in how I exist within university. It varies from needing to question assessment and teaching practice, trying to live independently, through to enduring ableist conversations. Last year, like many of us, I had a 24 hour exam. University policy offered disabled students 25 percent extra time. However, only five days before the exam, disabled students received an email reducing their extra time from six to only two hours based on the thought that able students might not use all of their total 24hrs. Disabled accessibility was dictated by centring able behaviours. While able students were free within their 24 hours to exercise judgement of their own needs, disabled students had this option removed.

Thankfully, my particular department in my experience has been very committed to addressing ableism. After contacting them to highlight the inequalities – including lack of notice, additional stress and revision time wasted needing to address the situation in comparison to the revision environ- ment for able students – the department fully rectified the situation and many able-bodied students demonstrated solidarity. However, I know other departments and students may not have had such support. It really demonstrates the importance of cultivating a university relationship between staff and disabled students where students feel able to raise issues of ableism without fear of negative consequences or gaslighting and also the importance of flexibility and openness to discussions around ableism.

There is something ironic about the academic culture of students, who possess various levels of privilege, being rewarded for being able to identify patterns of injustice in essays or seminars, if we don’t also ask ourselves to apply this critical lens to our lived world and our support of those in it.

I’m an English Literature student, and one of our core outcomes from our degree is the ability to understand and interpret language and to use it accurately to convey our intentions. I remember in early conversations about Covid-19, being in a flat kitchen where students reassured each other “don’t worry it’s only the disabled that are dying from it” and then realising my disabled self was in that moment totally invisible to them. There is absolutely a trauma to disabled people having lived through a period of such overt ableism and devaluation of their lives – where their existence and safety is a topic of constant debate in all settings (on the news, class, home) and usually contrasted to able inconvenience such as mask wearing or nightclubs.

Though ableism has always existed in universities, I think the pandemic has made it easier to contrast able and disabled student experiences. When a Covid positive student isolates for up to ten days, they are provided with £40 from the University, as well as the offer of mental health support. In contrast, during health flare ups I have gone as long as three weeks living off powder porridge made using the bathroom tap because I couldn’t manage the stairs. When the health crisis of the pandemic affected able students, online learning suddenly became possible and an expected right. Yet, already such provisions have disappeared again for disabled students now that able students no longer need them.

Disabled students enter university from a less privileged background, often where education should have been that gap is replaced with ableism traumas. We then try to keep up with a degree centred around able abilities whilst juggling enough health admin to constitute a second job – health flare ups, inaccessible living conditions, additional financial burdens, and casual and overt ableism. By the time I graduate, I will have had well over 200 doctors appointments, seven procedures, endometriosis surgery, a critical care stay and hopefully heart ablation surgery – NHS waiting lists willing! Everyday it takes hours to build up enough pain medication to even move to go brush my teeth. I am in severe pain constantly and try to study despite experiencing memory issues and heart episodes. It isn’t a level playing field, but the difference it would make to just feel that the ableism is noticed, acknowledged and called out by able students and staff would go such a long way.

So I’m hoping we can start with students using the A word. When you identify ableism you make it visible and therefore hold it accountable. It helps disabled students to feel that their experience of the world is being seen, and that people care about seeing it. I have an Instagram page @lizzie_etc which is a safe space for disabled people and any allies to empower, encourage and educate each other. It is okay to get it wrong sometimes. We are all learning and we need to cultivate an environment where we feel safe to tell each other when we have got it wrong. I do fully believe that with practice comes progression.