Blog post Part of series: A new ecology of higher education: Disability, access, participation and belonging
Student unions and the politics of disability for a more socially just higher education
What does disability activism reveal about higher education? In this blog post, we argue that activism as practised by disabled students exposes and challenges the workings of neoliberalism in English universities and their ableist cultures. Furthermore, disability activism exposes how the modes of action and resistance can change and take new forms in today’s universities. The latter became a particularly important theme in our project.
There is no question that marketisation of universities continues to dismantle education as a public good. In English higher education, the cuts to disabled students’ allowance (DSA) have brutally undermined equal opportunities based on the principles of universalism, leaving individuals responsible for their own success and wellbeing. Such changes reflect the widespread ableism where disabled students are relentlessly side-lined, excluded and left behind, even after a relatively more inclusive experience of remote learning during the series of Covid-19 lockdowns (Disabled Students UK, 2022).
To understand how prevailing ableism impacts activism, we interviewed eight Disabled Students’ Officers in England. We realised that these participants had a lot to offer to our ways of thinking about resistance and doing activism. Our data indicated that the strategies they used as activists were, on the one hand, shaped by neoliberal ways of doing things, but, on the other hand, they demonstrated more inclusive and caring modes of activism which can, despite all odds, foster collaboration, artistic expressions and ethics of care.
From conformity to care and creativity
Students emphasised the importance of producing evidence on disability discrimination, participating in committees, running surveys and lobbying, which they argued had become the expected ways of doing things. As one participant (P2) said: ‘from my experience, we just have to be based on evidence’. Since the attacks on DSA funding, Disabled Students’ Officers have produced several reports to expose the unfair treatment of disabled students, such as the reports by the UCL Disabled Student Forum (2020) and the Cambridge Disability Report (2018). The participants further described themselves as participating in existing institutional power structures through committee-based work in order ‘to be at the table’ (P6). These examples illustrate how activism has become more closely aligned with the work and cultures of the university management.
The Disabled Students’ Officers, however, do not only conform with expected practices, but they also do activism in ways that challenge universities’ ableist cultures. This happens through strong community sentiments and the practices of care:
‘ “No, no, no, you’ve done a lot, you need to sleep or like you need to eat food, you haven’t eaten all day. Please eat some food first.” … Things like that, I find being part of a supportive community like really helps you to know your own boundaries and to be able to assert boundaries as well, because you feel empowered to do rather than having to empower yourself.’ (P5)
It is through caring for oneself and showing care towards others that students are able to resist exclusionary higher education practices. Such emphasis on care leads to more creative and artistic forms in community-faced activism which aligns with the needs and rhythms of the disabled community. By practising more creative forms of slow activism, Disabled Students’ Officers developed a counternarrative of the ethics of care, indicating their awareness of their own and others’ needs and capabilities:
‘[The] biggest thing that a lot of activists need to know is like you can just stop doing things for a few months and everything will continue turning, and people will come back when you restart an events programme.’ (P6)
This project has enabled us to understand how spaces for more democratic and socially just forms of unionism and activism are possible in contexts that are heavily shaped by neoliberal emphasis on performance and evidence. These alternative practices, however, require creativity and values related to sharing as caring. The Disabled Students’ Officers we interviewed had all this, and they demonstrated a unique side of activism where trespassing a dominant ableist culture is possible as long as there is a community and will to do differently. While traditional forms of collective action against marketisation of universities may have become difficult, there is much to be learned about activism in the experience of disabled students, informing student activism more broadly. There is hope that slower and more creative forms of activism could help to imagine more inclusive, democratic and socially just higher education, particularly in the current turbulent times when we most need it.
Cambridge University Students’ Union. (2018). ‘Substantial disadvantage’: Reviewing the implementation of disabled students’ academic adjustments at the University of Cambridge. https://www.disabled.cusu.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Substantial-Disadvantage-Report-on-Academic-Reasonable-Adjustments-web.pdf
Disabled Students UK [DSUK]. (2022). Going back is not a choice: Accessibility lessons for higher education. https://disabledstudents.co.uk/not-a-choice/
Disabled Students’ Network. (2020). Disability discrimination faced by UCL students and recommended measures. University College London. https://studentsunionucl.org/articles/disability-discrimination-faced-by-ucl-students-and-recommended-measures