Does the social model of disability need to adopt an individual human rights based approach? Nadia Ahmed shares her experience, as a disabled student, of trying to fully participate in higher education.
The social model of disability is too simplified, should we now be moving towards a human rights approach as suggested by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 25): “recognise that persons with disabilities have the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination on the basis of disability”?
Last week I was supposed to be presenting at a conference in Germany but ended up doing a Skype presentation. Unfortunately, this was due to the delayed approval from the Students’ Finance England (SFE) for providing me with appropriate Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). DSA is an allowance provided by the SFE in order to assist disabled students with non-medical physical assistance, for example, a personal assistant’s travel costs and also provision of technical equipment like accessible software for a dyslexic student, therefore, as the social model recommends, eradicating the social barriers that challenge students with disabilities.
I had informed the DSA ahead of time about my attendance at the conference and that I’d need financial assistance towards funding the flight ticket and accommodation for my non-medical carer/helper. However, my DSA request was rejected on the basis that I was going on a holiday and I should bear the costs myself. I was astonished at receiving such an immature response. Once again my disability adviser spoke with them and explained that I was not going on holiday, I was meant to be attending a conference which is an integral part of my PhD studies and that I need non-medical assistance in dressing, using the toilet, eating, etc.
Apparently the SFE needed details of my disability requirements, I thought they were already aware of my disability and requirements as they do an assessment at the beginning of the course in order to eradicate barriers that would stop students with disabilities to move forward within education. The DSA’s provisions are good from a social model of disability perspective but this approach towards equality tends to overlook individual needs. There is a strong argument to be made to assess DSA through an individual human rights approach.
Eventually the SFE did approve the financial DSA assistance I required but it was too late, the flight ticket prices had risen from £200 to a good £350 and although the conference provided me with an honorarium towards my travel of £250, I did not want to buy more expensive tickets. Luckily enough for me, when I relayed this situation to the conference organisers, they suggested doing a Skype presentation which I agreed to. Although it was a hassle-free way of delivering the presentation in the comfort of my own home, it was not the same as I was missing out on crucial networking, attending other presentations on similar and diverse topics and taking part in different workshops which would be beneficial for my research.
This has been argued elsewhere too: “Even though e-mail, Skype, Go-To-Meeting, Linkedin, and other communication resources allow for an expansion of interactions at a distance, I still think that in-person communication at conferences is a critical way to share information and develop oneself as a professional in the field.” (Rhodes 2014: 1)
Conferences for academics, students or non-academics are important for professional development but they are also “social event comprising interrelated genres which arises in a particular context” (Ventola et al. 2002: 9). Attending a conference involves multiple kinds of events, including presentations, collaboration, networking, mentoring, social visiting (sightseeing) and sometimes even interviewing for potential jobs. Also, each conference is organised in a particular infrastructure shaped according to the discipline, location etc.
This situation wouldn’t have arisen if the SFE had all my disability requirement details at hand. Providing disabled-friendly equipment (computers, printers, library assistance, book allowance, etc.) is important for disabled students. However, as a welfare state, we also have a responsibility towards creating human rights and a morally just society by not only removal of physical barriers but also by creating a flexible system in order to accommodate differences. In return, disabled people have a responsibility to be active in society through education, employment, socially wherever they possibly can.
[Rhodes, G. 2014. Going to sessions and preasenting at sessions: taking advantage of memtoring, professional and personal development oppourtunities, a personal prespective. It’s Conference Season Again [Online]. 2014].
Ventola, E., Shalom, C., & Thompson, S. (Eds.). (2002). The language of conferencing. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.]
Nadia Ahmed is a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London and researching on practicable working environments for disabled academics at universities in United Kingdom. Her inspiration is her own disability and struggle towards getting employment as a disabled academic in United Kingdom. Nadia can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.