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September 11, 2016 | by  | in Opinion |
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Diversity in university

Her electric wheelchair has headlights and indicators. It begins to change before my eyes, “you push the button and pull the joystick forward, and it goes into the standing position.” One of her friends jokes that she is an actual Transformer. There are different types of cerebral palsy—her type means restricted movement of all four limbs. But when she transforms the chair into the upright position, she can give her mum a proper hug.

I’ve never had to think too much about what it would be like to be a disabled university student. Sometimes, when I use a disabled toilet on campus, I worry that when I open the door I’ll be faced with a scowling girl in a wheelchair who I’ve made wait. Sometimes I see ramps on campus and think that it’s cool that we cater to disabled students. Passing thoughts. That’s like the actual definition of privilege—not having to think about the advantages that you’re lucky enough to have.

I ask this girl whether she thinks that Victoria is a diverse university, and she says “to a certain degree, yes.” I’m not sure whether the pun was intended. She says that generally the university has turned out to be more supportive than she expected. Disability services gives disabled students a voice and presence in our community, and are really accommodating: “If you go around the uni and you find a door that is too hard to open, all you have to do is tell them, and they will see if they can get it automated.” She particularly appreciates having reader-writers because she physically can’t handwrite the way that other students can.

On Kelburn campus there is also the disability room, which allows her to meet other disabled students, of which there are many. Dyslexia, ADHD, hearing impairments. Physical and mental. Visible and invisible. Here, older students helpfully pass on advice: “study tips or an easier access to a certain room, or just general tips on how to make uni life easier.” Being able to connect with others like yourself allows people to say “you know what, I’ve experienced that too, I understand how you’re feeling and you’re not alone… and sometimes all you need is that understanding,” she says.

I remember a debate that I had with a friend a few years ago. I argued that rooms reserved for only a certain type of person are a bad idea because they encourage separation rather than inclusion. I would’ve said that a room for only disabled students serves to set that group apart, to highlight a distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’. After talking to students who use these sorts of rooms, I see the value in being able to bond with others with shared experiences. Safe spaces give minority groups a place where acceptance and understanding are guaranteed.

Other students can be accepting and understanding too, of course. She says that most people at Vic are really good, “if I drop my book, someone will pick it up, y’know.” Most don’t ask about her wheelchair, presumably because they don’t want to be rude. “I personally don’t have an issue with it, if people want to know my story then I am more than happy to let them know.” She appreciates conversation more than being stared at. “I’m not a scary person; I’m a nice person. If you want to come up to me and say hello, do that, don’t be scared that I’m like, gonna run you over… do they not know how much trouble I would get in if I just went around running over everybody in the university?”

Although she appreciates that our university is generally supportive, there’s room for improvement. She mentions that when her reader-writer once forgot to show up to her exam, she couldn’t sit the exam until weeks later. There could also be more disability desks—each room only has the capacity for one student in a wheelchair, and she wonders what would happen if one of her classmates broke their leg and ended up in a wheelchair.

As it turns out there’s more to accessibility than just having ramps. There are day to day challenges with navigating crowds and waiting for someone to open a door when her hands are full. There’s a lot of patience involved: “if a lift is broken, for example, I have to wait until it’s fixed in order to get up to that particular class.” For me, it would mean having to take the stairs. The same issues have different consequences for people because we’re not on a level playing field.

Our university has a scholarship for NCEA merit-endorsement students with financial hardship or disabilities, to make things fairer. She received five thousand dollars toward hostel fees, which enabled her to afford university. If not for that scholarship we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Having diverse people at university makes it a better place. We learn so much from talking to people who are different to ourselves; all too easily this place could turn into an elitist echo-chamber of like-minded and like-bodied students. So, yeah, affirmative action and scholarships have flaws, but the possibilities that they create are more important. They’ve enabled this (optimus) prime person to be at university, making sarcastic comments, watching Game of Thrones, and knowing her mind.

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