Beth Dillon, co-founder of the LUNA project, reflects on Disability History Month, her experiences as a disabled student, and looks towards a more accessible future.
This past month has been Disability History Month, a time to celebrate the achievements of disabled people and promote the continuation of the movement for disability rights. There have been vast improvements in disability rights since the first mass protests some 25 years ago. Legislative changes, such as the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 and the Equality Act of 2010, have been introduced, which, among many other things, have made it illegal to discriminate against someone based upon their disability. There have been many improvements since 1995, but there are still changes to be made.
There have been great changes regarding attitudes towards disabled people. The growth of social media and small charities have meant that more people have a platform to raise awareness and encourage acceptance of disability (shameless self-plug, check out the LUNA Project). Throughout my work, I’ve found that, by and large, people are tolerant. In my personal life, I’m grateful to have a fantastic group of friends who support me in ways they cannot know.
I only started viewing myself as disabled once it came to filling out forms for university when it became clear that this was the “buzzword” for accessing support. Throughout school I distanced myself from the term disability, feeling that I was “not disabled enough” or that the term didn’t fit me - which is ironic, considering by the end of high school, I was dependent on my crutches and regularly used my wheelchair. On reflection, this was internalized ableism in action, and I viewed the concept of disability as a synonym for “inability”, which is something I have worked hard to change. Problematic conceptions of or attitudes towards disabled people do, of course, extend to the general public; one in three disabled people feel there is still a lot of disability prejudice in Britain today, and over 80% of children with disabilities experience bullying, something which I can acutely relate to. These shockingly high statistics highlight that there are still significant improvements to be made.
Equal access to education has always been at the heart of the disability movement. I was extremely lucky with my school experiences; I had an incredibly supportive SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) and my teachers were fabulous at coming up with ways to support and include me. Perhaps most importantly, they believed in me and encouraged me to pursue what I felt at the time were simply pipe dreams. However, my education was riddled with accessibility issues. My school had no lift (but lots of stairs), and so for most of my GCSE years, I had to teach myself from the student support centre. This does not scream “equality of opportunity”, and thousands of other students in underfunded schools continue to go without the tools they require to succeed. Upon coming to university, I struggled to access support through the disability services. When it comes to my course (I’m a medic - I’m sorry, but you know how it is, we have to mention our course in every conversation!), I have found little help about how to tackle vocational challenges such as being able to hear stethoscope sounds, and have been reluctant to be more vocal about this for fear people will question my competence. Despite attempting to self-advocate, I often find myself going around in circles, with no one person taking responsibility, instead constantly signposting me to someone else. Being constantly confronted with “have you talked with…?” whenever you reach out is exhausting. These issues don’t go away when you reach the world of work, where there is the additional curveball of a staggering 12.2% disability pay gap .
The accessibility that the disability rights movement seeks to achieve does not end at education. In the 25 years since the first disability rights protest, yes, accessibility of buildings and transport have increased - but that’s not the whole picture. Inaccessibility exists everywhere.
Inaccessibility is saying that you “don’t need” the toilet because there are no accessible ones nearby, or dreading going home during university holidays because your house is so much harder to get around. It is the 30% of shops found to be inaccessible, often leaving you to wait awkwardly outside whilst your companion nips in to get something. Inaccessibility is avoiding train journeys for fear of train drivers that give you “that look” when you ask to use the ramp, leading to you becoming one of the one in three disabled people who feel that problems with public transport have reduced their independence. For every person with any kind of disability unwelcome and unnecessary, challenges seem to spring up around every corner.
I am infinitely grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had because of those who fought for these changes - but I remain acutely aware of the distance still left to travel before we can say true equality has been reached.
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