Accessible Cambridge: An Alternative View

ABI PALMER says it’s time to rethink the way we talk about the problems facing disabled people in Cambridge.

Abi Palmer Cambridge Cambridge University Disability disabled physical disability

At the beginning of this month, Varsity added its voice to a call for better disabled sport provisions in Cambridge. ‘In the vast majority of cases [sport] is about having fun, enjoying yourself and socialising,’ argues Roxana Antohi. ‘We can’t all be Paralympians.’

Too true. I’m really glad that there are people in Cambridge who want to make it easier for people with physical disabilities to socialise – it’s about time. But there’s a different type of social isolation happening at the moment, and it’s one that an accessible sports hall won’t solve.

A while ago, I sent out an email asking physically disabled students to talk about their own experiences at Cambridge. I was hoping to nab an expose on the crap wheelchair access that this city has, like the bumpy tree roots on Sidgwick Road that tipped my mobility scooter sideways, or the countless ‘accessible’ lifts in libraries that are locked behind inaccessible doors, with busy librarian key holders.

Sidgwick Avenue. Credit: Joanna Bowzyk.

These bloody awful pavements aren’t the only problem

However, a majority of the recipients wanted to tell a different kind of story. Over two thirds of the responses in my inbox came from people I didn’t really believe existed. Other students like myself, with ‘unseen’ physical disabilities: chronic and lifelong conditions which may not be immediately obvious to an outsider but cause huge limitations.

Themes of constant pain, fatigue, and unpredictable flare ups echo through almost all of the messages. “My condition is effectively a lack of the right type of collagen in my body tissue,” a fellow Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome patient explains. “I suffer from 24/7 chronic pain, haemophilia, fatigue, digestive issues and stiffness/inability to move.” Behçet’s disease leaves one student with “days where I can’t walk, or get out of bed. I need help washing and dressing.” Extreme reactions to sleep deprivation such as brain fog, immune malfunction and unrelenting mouth ulcers are also reported.

Sometimes, just knowing you’re not alone can be the difference between feeling at home and feeling like the only person in the world. So much of early university life is about bonding – forming intense personal relationships with a group of people (regardless of whether you actually like each other) to stave off the loneliness of arriving in a new place, totally surrounded by strangers. Those people who lend you a quid for the cheese on your 4am Van of Life chips, or bring you mid-essay-crisis coffee and biscuits, fast become a surrogate family in your home away from home. Without them, you are just a stranger in an empty room.

But the level of energy and stamina most fresher’s week activities requires means a lot of this essential bonding is off limits to the people who probably need it most.

“I think my condition stopped stopped me making friends in first year,” says one student. “I was in too much pain and too fatigued to go to a lot of the fresher’s events, which led to a lot of people thinking I was antisocial.”

And of course if you haven’t had a chance to make friends, there’s nobody around to notice when you’re not doing so well. One postgrad student describes ending up in A+E after a long journey to Cambridge from abroad left her violently ill. “I lay in my room, unable to move or eat for 2 days,” she says, “and nobody knew I was there. Eventually a cleaner came in to change the bins and I was able to call for help.”

After fresher’s week, making friends becomes even harder. Whereas many students take part in activities such as sport or theatre, most chronically sick folk are barely scraping by. In my own case, at least half of each day is spent in physio, lying still or trying to negotiate hospitals, doctors appointments and unpredictable immune flare ups. This leaves little time for a night out at Cindies. And when you need 10 hours of sleep just to stave off brain fog, there is no such thing as the essay all-nighter.

‘The Cambridge Experience’ is intense and overwhelming for almost everyone, but without the support and sense of inclusion from your fellow peers, depression and loneliness are closer than ever. This certainly doesn’t help when your body is already having to work much harder.

If we want progress, it’s time to change our perception of what disability looks like. If you know someone with a limiting condition, why not ask them about it? What sort of activities can they get involved with? What sort of activities make them unwell? If they can’t make it to the dining hall can you arrange to cook dinner and eat together sometimes? How about a couple of hours in a pub or café with comfy chairs, or the occasional film night?

It’s time to have a different sort of conversation. Yes, it’s important to have wheelchair access, and better sports provisions for disabled people in Cambridge. But ‘disability’ needs more than that. And the only way you’re going to find out is to ask.