Disabled activists have called for action to address the discrimination and disablism faced by disabled students and pupils, and to enforce the laws that should be protecting them.
They were speaking at the launch of UK Disability History Month (UKDHM), which this year is focusing on disability, children and youth.
Mette Anwar-Westander, founder and chief executive of Disabled Students UK, was part of the Disabled Students Network at University College London (UCL) when it published a report in early 2020 that described the discrimination they were facing.
After the report was published, she told the launch event, she began to be contacted by disabled students at other universities who were reporting similar concerns.
A meeting with fellow students from across the country led to the creation of Disabled Students UK (DSUK).
This year, DSUK has carried out the largest survey yet of disabled students in higher education in the UK, with input from more than 1,300 disabled students.
Anwar-Westander said the project had shown that the disability rights movement had brought advances in support for disabled university students that would have been “unthinkable 25 years ago”.
But she said the results also showed that “in many ways the law is not being enforced”.
She said: “Despite the right to access their education on equal terms with their non-disabled peers, only 35 per cent of our students actually stated that they have the support and adjustments needed to do so.”
The 2020 report – which was welcomed at the time by UCL – included results from a survey of disabled students, which found two-thirds of them (67 per cent) had experienced disablism by UCL and about three-fifths (58 per cent) said they had been made to feel unwelcome by the university because of their impairments.
Suzanna Chen, a postgraduate disabled student and disabled students’ officer at UCL, and campaigns assistant at DSUK, said many disabled students at UCL had “reported losing trust in the system” because their previous feedback, including the 2020 report, “has not really resulted in any substantial changes”.
She called for changes such as enforcing reasonable adjustments at universities, setting up complaints procedures to hold those responsible for disablism “accountable”, and ensuring there was disability awareness and equality training for all students and staff, to make “campus culture more inclusive”.
Richard Rieser, founder of UK Disability History Month, said there was “much to be fought for and much to be changed”, with 191,000 disabled children currently being educated in segregated schools.
He said there was a need to “value difference” and “remove the barriers for access and communication” within an education system that is being run on “eugenicist lines”, which “needs to be challenged as a human rights abuse”.
Rieser said there was also a need to enforce existing disability equality laws that should outlaw discrimination and harassment in schools and colleges but are rarely used.
And he said he regretted seeing the return of David Cameron to government, as the new foreign secretary was responsible for the 2010 coalition government’s policy of reversing what the former prime minister saw at the time as a “bias towards inclusion” in schools.
Rieser said: “We need a new leap forward now so that all children are included and can become part of the community.”
Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, which hosted the launch event in central London, said: “I absolutely fundamentally believe that with adequate resources, properly funded, most of our students can thrive alongside their peers, and that is something that we must absolutely be fighting for.”
He said the government’s focus “should be on making a school system that is inclusive and fit for purpose for educating all young people”.
But he said that “building inclusion requires investment, in terms of funding, and time for staff to do their jobs properly, and changing the overall culture of education”.
He added: “With the government’s SEN* and disability policy being directed largely towards saving money, rather than providing what young people need to thrive in an inclusive education system, putting the emphasis back onto the young people and empowering them to advocate for themselves is crucial.”
Yewande Akintelu-Omoniyi, Our Voice youth officer at The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), told the UKDHM event that discovering the disabled people’s movement at the age of 19 had changed her life, after a mainstream education where she had faced disablism and discrimination.
She said: “I understood that the discrimination that I had been facing was not my fault.
“I was able to identify with other young people who were experiencing the same barriers.”
But she said she still felt left out as she was often the only black disabled person at disability rights events.
She said: “That’s why joining ALLFIE’s Disabled Black Lives Matter group has been so helpful.
“I’ve been able to meet other people who understand my experience as a black disabled person.
“I would say to every young disabled person who is growing up and struggling with their identity: anything that you are experiencing now is not your fault. The world has not woken up to how amazing you are.
“I and many others will keep fighting for you so that we get close to an equal world for you; but until then, keep believing in yourself.”
Dr Miro Griffiths, co-director of The Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds, advised against trying to “establish a youth voice” within the disability movement.
He said: “I think that does a disservice really to what we are trying to achieve within disability activism, which is to think about how all our ideas within the process of resistance and… articulating an alternative vision for inclusive societies, how that can flourish because of the collaboration and ideas that come from different communities, whether that’s youth groups, whether that’s people from ethnic communities, whether that’s those who are bringing in the intersections of sexuality and disability.”
Disabled self-advocate Ellen Goodey described how she had enjoyed a mainstream education from nursery school through to college in the east London borough of Newham, which pioneered an inclusive education system in the 1980s.
She said: “It meant I was part of my community, I have lots of friends and have a great life.”
Her mother, Linda Jordan, was one of a group of parents who worked with Newham council in the early 1980s to close special schools and enable their disabled children to attend local mainstream schools.
Jordan stood for election to the council and became chair of Newham’s education committee.
She said: “We came at it very much in terms of the human rights perspective that these were eugenic ideas that were no longer acceptable, and it was just morally wrong to segregate people on the basis of socially-constructed labels.
“What we discovered was that by kids going to their local schools, actually it was great for everybody; education for everybody improved, the teachers had much more joy in their teaching because they were having to think about how they could include everybody.
“We managed to break that barrier so we no longer thought that if you were clever you were more important… and education attainment actually improved dramatically and education attainment for all children increased.”
She told the meeting that the “backwards movement” on inclusion under the current government had been “shocking and utterly frustrating”.
*Special educational needs
Picture: (From left to right) Ellen Goodey, Mette Anwar-Westander and Yewande Akintelu-Omoniyi
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