Meet the UCL students making a change for people with disabilities
From fighting for better curriculums to mentoring with lived experiences, these students are doing a lot to improve accessibility
Disability History Month runs annually from November 18 to December 18 in the UK, and International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPWD) also falls on December 3 of every year.
This past IDPWD, UCL Student Support and Wellbeing held an online conference that brought together “academics, advisers and students to explore Leadership and Participation of Persons with Disabilities.” SSW Manager (Disability Support) and event organiser Louise described the event as “a platform for the students we work for, via the expert student panel, as well as the amazing work and research our UCL community has done, in, and for, disability participation over the past year.”
Having been fortunately invited to share my experiences and journalism as a disabled student, I met some UCL students actively making a change for disabled people in the uni and broader community. Here are some of them.
A med student’s battle with outdated curriculums
Riya Gosrani is a fifth-year med student at UCL’s Medical School and a student coordinator at the Disability Health and Wellbeing subgroup of the school’s Student EDI. This year, one of their main aims is to “improve awareness and reduce stigma of disability amongst all medical students at UCL, who will become the future generation of doctors.” They are also pushing for mandatory lectures within the school that will “myth-bust common misconceptions surrounding disabilities.”
During the conference, Riya highlighted the issue of language in medicine when addressing disabilities.
“I think that throughout my five years of my course, the way in which we are taught about disabilities and often the language that is used is often quite problematic.”
Specifically, she referenced the medical model of disabilities, which centres on the idea that disabilities are “flaws” of a person’s body or mind. This, in Riya’s own words, portrays “a person with a disability [as] being limited or even defined by the condition.”
This model is considered outdated and discriminatory compared to the social model of disabilities, which suggests that people with disabilities are actually disabled by an environment not suitable for their unique traits. It pushes the idea of disabilities as a social construct rather than biological deficits – a neutral thing rather than a negative one.
In the context of language, the medical model might result in phrases like “one is suffering from/treated for a disability,” whereas the social model might sound like “one has a disability and needs certain supports.” When Riya saw the importance of using the social model, she, alongside a colleague in her EDI group, embarked on a project “to go through the entire medical school curriculum, from years one to six, and to improve the language that is being used to teach medical students about various disabilities.”
Riya gave an example of a module about autistic spectrum conditions, where her team found that “some of the terminology […] used was highly problematic and quite offensive.”
“Two weeks after [we noticed the problems with the curriculum], we contacted the doctors who created the course and set up a meeting, which we had last week, to suggest how they might go about changing it and why some of the words in the language was problematic.
“They were really receptive, and changes are being made already, which means that for future medical students, hopefully, the course will be changed in a positive way.”
Aside from that, she also mentioned wanting to see a more “person-centred approach […] in the medical arena. This might look like “asking individuals with disabilities how they perceive their disability and how they would like it to be addressed and not being afraid to ask the individuals themselves.”
A neurodivergent PhD candidate’s mission to help similar students
Matthew Hancock is a research degree student in mechanical engineering. As a neurodivergent, certain aspects of campus life are inaccessible to him – i.e. finding the way around campus and being “overwhelmed with environmental conditions such as light.” But what frustrates him more is the fact that people don’t acknowledge his struggles due to his disability being invisible: “You still find people who will insist that being neurodiverse is not a disability because they can’t see [it].
“They don’t understand why you want to sit out of the full beam of LED lights, while thinking you not too bright and shouldn’t been on a PhD!”
Knowing neurodivergent struggles by heart, Matthew went through training to become a mentor helping other autistic students navigate campus life. His work involves things like assisting autistic students “with time management, motivation or a non-university issue like housing, diet, and confidence building.” A part of his motive is that neurodiverse students “would like and respond well to [a mentor] who’s neurodiverse.”
“I felt I was in a good place to fill that gap and, potentially in the future, train other mentors in helping us as neurodiverse students.”
He also enjoys his work because “if I can help other students [with] my experience and help them avoid a bad situation, it can only be of benefit to our community.”
Matthew also recently became an assistive technology trainer. “Having used it myself for many years, [I have had several experiences of] being trained and still not really feeling that you get good training and that you ever get to fully use the resource yourself. I felt I could be better.”
And there shouldn’t be any doubts about that – after all, it is disabled individuals who are the real experts in supporting their disabled peers.
Riya and Matthew’s works are just two of the many efforts at increasing disabled participation and experiences on uni campuses. Some other examples are those involved in Disabled Students’ Networks and Disabled Student’s Officers at Students’ Unions. (And, shameless self-promotion: some of my articles also aim to increase disability awareness, like the two about autistic and ADHD experiences at UCL.)
One of the Disabled Student’s Officers at UCL this year, Danilo, told The London Tab that he ran for the position along with a colleague as they “really want to help make a difference in the university and help any way that we can.” Particularly, he emphasised wanting to organise more socials for the “disabled students [who] often do not get enough support at UCL.”
“Meeting others can really help. It can make you feel like you’re not alone.”
That being said, leadership and participation of people with disabilities is also something that every student can help improve.
Actions like attending events and raising awareness on campaigns by Disabled Students’ Networks or opening up conversations about mental health struggles might seem small, but they go a long way in normalising disabilities conditions that one can live and thrive with, rather than “tragedies” or “burdens.”