Just over a year ago I wrote an article for this very newspaper on my reflections as an autistic student at Oxford in my final year. I wrote about making that coming-of-age journey from uncomfortable, socially awkward freshling to active, involved and confident finalist. It was pretty nice to write, all things considered, and I get the feeling it was pretty nice for able people to read. To quote the last line of that article, “Having a disability at Oxford is really, really tough. It’s also turned out to be really fucking amazing.”
I know what my motivations were for writing that article: to send a message that “it gets better”, that lovely liberal buzz phrase to make us feel all warm and fuzzy.
But now I’m not convinced that that was the message I sent out. I was, perhaps, telling the able people of our student body that they were doing everything right. And what message does that send to the disabled person who is made to feel unable to get involved in a sports team or a society, or to go to a particular event or club night, or even to feel like they’re a valued member of the student body? It’s all very well for me to say that I feel like I’ve had some good successes while I’ve been here. But it’s also the case that, from the moment I got here, I’ve been made to feel like I have to apologise for my disability. And that, in case anyone is in any doubt, is ableism: a method through which society disables me and others by making us feel like our disabilities are only our weaknesses and never our strengths.
This isn’t to say that every able member of the student body is an ableist; I’ve had friends who have supported me in ways I never imagined before I got to university. But that’s only part of the story. The ways I’ve been made to feel – the exclusion, the erasure, the criticism – came from able people who felt uncomfortable around autistic voices and faces, and so they wanted to pretend I wasn’t there.
I don’t have space in this article to give every example of this ableism, so I’ll give you just one. It’s about how I’m made to feel within our LGBTQ social scene. This little world is dominated among the student body by the attractive, the loud, the socially confident, the neurotypical. And many of those same students exclude those who don’t have these qualities from their social groups, their drinks events, their ‘reserved’ spaces in nightclubs, even the language they use: for example, the massively overused ‘quiche’ to refer to anyone or anything hot, cool or fabulous (read: confident, loud, attractive).
I’m sure they have no idea what they’re doing; it can be hard to see the damage done by regularly repeating the name of a pastry. But every time that I hear it, I’m just reminded that I’m not quiche. I’m autistic; I just can’t be quiche. And while I wish I had the privilege of not caring about such a ridiculous fact, I do. Because these people have turned our queer spaces into quiche spaces. I want the LGBTQ scene to include me. But it doesn’t.
I don’t wish to single out these people: these same qualities are seen almost as regularly in other ‘worlds’ I’m involved in: the political world, the feminist world.
Sometimes, it’s the same people in all the worlds. I’m glad to be involved in those things; they’ve taught me a lot and I fight for things I care about through them. But it exacerbates these problems even further: because remember, these are the people who claim to be “good guys” and “intersectional feminists”, who claim to care about disabled liberation. When those people are not only some of the loudest people in the student body, but also those who claim to represent and support disabled people, it has made me question whether there is any hope of disabled people being able to speak up about how being disabled at this University actually makes us feel.
That’s what motivated me to write this article. Most importantly, it’s a plea, made as an act of hope. I may not be able to find anyone like me – anyone who makes me feel like I’m not alone, who’s felt the same frustration and anxiety – on the dance floor of the Plush Lounge, or in the lecture theatres of OUSU Council. But maybe someone will be out there reading this article who is also angry, and maybe even wants to do something about it. I’m speaking out, and I just hope that I’m not the only one who wants to, or feels able to do so. To the disabled people reading this: you’re brilliant. We need you.
Of course, that wasn’t my only motivation. It was also written for those able people who aren’t guilty of this ableism; for you, I hope that this article will simply mean you will (continue to) do what you do. To make me feel welcome, included and valued. Thank you.