Casual ableism in Scottish universities is an issue that no one is ready to talk about

Are we woke or are we hypocrites?


People call university “the best years of your life”. For many of us, these years are filled with critical thinking, expanding our knowledge and experiences, drinking enough for a village, and being surrounded by like-minded people. What we’re possibly not ready to talk about is this culture is not as sincere as we maybe think it is. We are quick to demand systemic change, as we should, yet are often less revolutionary closer to home. Derogatory comments – especially ableist ones – are constantly allowed to slide in the name of a joke.

Ahead of their match on the 26th of October, Glasgow Caledonian University’s men’s hockey team and Aberdeen University’s men’s hockey team took to their socials to publicly bash one another, something usually considered playful banter. However, this “banter” dubbed GCU a “special needs university”. The post also placed the GCU logo over a picture of Andy, a character in a wheelchair, from Little Britain.

Whilst rivalries can be healthy competition creating university loyalty and team camaraderie, comments can all too often turn to bigotry in the name of a sports match or other trivial matters.

Aberdeen University has since opened an investigation into the incident and Aberdeen University Men’s Hockey Club said: “We deeply regret the post that was made by our club. We are working with the Student Unions’ and the University to ensure this incident is dealt with appropriately. We apologise unreservedly for the offence caused and would like to reiterate that we are an inclusive club welcome to all.”

This example is one of the endless “trivial” comments that will occur on campuses on a weekly basis – comments with no basis or need.  We so often scorn our universities for being insensitive yet brush off remarks happening from within  – are we hypocrites?

The Scottish Government recorded in 2019 that the number of students with disabilities attending Scottish Higher Education providers was 12 per cent of the total and alluded to a steady increase in this number, i.e. over one out of ten of us within our academic community. The presence of casual ableism in university culture is therefore worrying and damaging to a significant number of our student community.

In October 2022, Glasgow Live reported that a disabled Glasgow student was living in a hotel due to a lack of suitable flats and after two minutes of googling I found dozens of stories like this across Scotland and the rest of the UK. Universities are not adequately supporting their students with disabilities and neither are some of our peers. The arguments I’m sick of hearing, that “it’s better than it was” and “it’s just a joke so don’t make a big deal out of it”,  are simply not plausible. After battling the university for needs to be met, oftentimes with insufficient “compromises” being found, students are then graced with their peers making untoward comments like this in the name of fun.

The university community, as many communities are, is underrepresented. I haven’t met a single student that hasn’t been jilted or ignored by a lecturer, landlord, or MP before – we are time and time again disregarded due to our status. We need to support each other and stand together to work for better conditions, yet we’re still misfiring and insulting one another.

We as a generation are quick to call boomers and Gen X “out of touch”, racist, sexist, and so on. Whilst I agree that we in general are more open and welcoming to all communities than those before us, these off-hand comments that many of us are so used to hearing are anything but that. In my first week of university, I heard “that’s so gay” more times than I can count. Phrases like “you throw like a girl” and many, many ableist slurs are so normalised within our community that we barely register them anymore. All of this needs to change.

“Wokeism” is not damaging. Tolerance is not enough – and it never was. Whilst I register that a lot of the world is like this and these comments are a regular part of our culture, that doesn’t make it okay. They call us “World Changers” at Glasgow Uni, a phrase with a lot of responsibility and I don’t think it’s too clichéd to say that change starts from within the community.

All of this is not to say that we are bad people either way, but I know that I am incredibly lucky to be where I am though take this for granted too often. I know that it’s easy to go about life on autopilot, saying everything that comes to mind for the opportunity for a quick joke. However, a quick joke for one individual could be years of aggression and discrimination for another.

“Woke” is not “woke” when we are picking and choosing our fights – “woke” needs both intersectionality and scope desperately.

A University of Aberdeen spokesperson said: “We have received a formal complaint regarding this incident and will be conducting an investigation under the University Code of Practice.

“The University is committed to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and to the wellbeing of all our students and staff, and we strongly condemn the use of any offensive online content.

“We are working with our colleagues in AUSA in relation to this incident, and representatives of the University and of the Men’s Hockey Club will meet this week to discuss the issues raised, with a view to ensuring that such behaviour is not repeated.”

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