Why CUSU needs a Disabled Students’ Officer

Disabled students are often side-lined at University. A Disabled Students’ Officer would give them a voice.

CUSU disabled sabb

This Wednesday, CUSU will hold a referendum on the creation of a Disabled Students’ Officer (DSO).

This follows a petition organised by the CUSU Disabled Students’ Campaign (DSC), which reached more than the 350 signatures needed for referendum.

All we want is for an equal playing field. / Photo from cam.ac.uk

Give disabled students an equal playing field.

This comes following calls from the Disabled Students Campaign, arguing Cambridge has “inadequate” mental health support, a lack of staff training, and a university that is “inaccessible” in its physical layout as well as its teaching and examination structures. Creating a full-time Disabled Students Officer would challenge these deep-rooted “institutional problems.”

Statistically, disabled students make up 7.2% of our student body. Over 1,800 current students are registered with the Disabilities Resource Centre. They face the daily challenge of juggling, perhaps more so than ‘balancing’, their studies with a disability and the inevitable complexities that come with it. Complications include trying to make supervisors understand their circumstances, dealing with treatments, taking much longer than ‘average’ to complete simple tasks, and the ongoing uncertainty that a disability may bring.

Where you see a nice stroll, wheelchair-users see a bumpy, cobbled path. Many university buildings are already not disabled-friendly. A DSO would help ease other daily difficulties. / Photo from Wikipedia

Not so great on the wheelchair friendliness.

Disabled students do have the DRC to help with some of their needs. Assistance includes the loan of specialist equipment and arrangements for note-taking, for example.

But they still need a Disabled Students’ Officer.

Whilst the DRC does provide invaluable help, it doesn’t represent students in the way a sabbatical officer would. The purpose of the CUSU Sabbatical Team is to advance the education of its members, and to act as a ‘channel of communication’ between members, the University, and other organisations. Compare this to the individualized work of the DRC. A Disabled Students’ Officer would be better positioned to engage with the larger student community.

A Disabled Students’ Officer would raise awareness of disability. They would promote positive self-definition amongst disabled students, encouraging those who choose not to declare their disability to seek support. Most importantly, they would work across the university and its colleges, providing the support that disabled students so pressingly need.

Some may argue that this can be done by the Welfare and Rights Officer. It can’t. The current Welfare and Rights Officer sits on a wide range of committees, discussing issues from finance to research ethics. Expecting them to shoulder the responsibility of campaigning for the disabled on top of this would be a step too far.

Disabled students are spread across every college, strengthening the case for a Disabled Students’ Officer to work at university level. The officer would coordinate with college representatives, ensuring that disabled students receive the support they require.

It is vital that a population so easily overlooked has its best interests, in many cases just basic everyday needs, campaigned for. This must include disabilities that are not visible, as these are often sidelined due to a lack of understanding.

Allan Hennessy, a visually impaired journalist at The Guardian and a law student at Fitz, supports the creation of a Disabled Students’ Officer. He said, “Students with a disability are underrepresented. Student politics is not interested in disability, but it is time it started to care. The creation of a Disabled Students’ Officer at CUSU would get the ball rolling.”

Later this week, CUSU will hold a referendum: “Do you accept the proposed constitutional changes, which would add a Disabled Students’ Sabbatical Officer to the CUSU Full-Time Elected Officer Team?”

Disabled students at Cambridge are hugely under-represented. When you mark your vote this Wednesday, do so with this in mind. 

You can find more information about the referendum, including opposing arguments, here.