As a pretty shy person, I do not usually volunteer for public speaking opportunities. But sometimes, the opportunity to discuss a subject I care about with a wider audience is too good to refuse. That is how I found myself giving an assembly to 800 people on disability rights during my last year at school, and why I recently volunteered to join the panel for a Question Time-style debate on disability issues run by Warwick University’s Politics Society.
This discussion was part of the Student Union’s Disability Awareness Week, an annual event held to highlight the issues faced by people with physical and learning disabilities, as well as those with mental illnesses—within higher education and beyond. While I was impressed by the sheer fact of its existence, as disability issues are so often ignored, I was disappointed by how few people seemed to know, or care, that it was happening. It was a stark contrast to the hype surrounding last term’s popular Gay Pride Week. The turnout of 24 students was markedly low—often the audience at Politics Society debates is upwards of 80.
Of those who did come, only one other person was physically disabled yet we all shared the view that something must be done to put disability rights in the spotlight. For me, the most memorable moment was watching understanding dawn on the faces of the audience as I answered the question; “How much of a problem is discrimination against disabled people in society?” The short answer is: a big one. I gave examples of my own difficulties ranging from struggling to access mainstream education as a child, to ostracism at secondary school, to knowing that finding a full-time job when I graduate will probably be harder for me than my fellow students.
I broached the delicate subject of disability-related bullying, and the even more delicate one of romantic relationships. It is rare that I open up about such things even with close friends, but taking the leap was worth it, as it made people think. As always, it is the personal touch which draws people to a cause.
Other issues raised included the ongoing stigmatisation of mental illness throughout society and, more particularly, within the NHS, where treatment is often withheld or stopped too quickly. There was also a strong debate about benefits, in which I argued, as I have before on this blog, that the focus should be on getting disabled people in to work. On this there was consensus across the ideological spectrum, with representatives of Warwick’s Labour and Conservative societies agreeing that money needs to be funnelled into convincing employers to hire disabled workers.
One aspect of disability policy was neglected: social care provision. It is in the hidden areas of washing and dressing, cooking and cleaning, that many disabled people struggle. Few on the panel seemed able to acknowledge this, but throughout the debate on employment I wondered how we expect people to hold down a job if they can not get dressed in time for work, if at all. In talking about bullying, I wondered how we expect disabled teenagers to integrate if they are housebound when not in school due to a lack of care. Unfortunately, these are questions which only someone who has first-hand knowledge of disability knows to ask.
“Disability Question Time was both a triumph and a disappointment,” said Rebecca Gittins a first year politics student. I agree. The determination of those present to fight against discrimination was inspiring. But I couldn’t help but feel deflated by the lack of enthusiasm among the majority of my fellow students, which proves that disability rights remains a niche issue. In the end, I came away with more questions than answers. I guess that makes Warwick’s Question Time reminiscent of the real thing.