It feels strange and a little ironic to say that I’m too sick to go to NUS Disabled Students’ Conference 2013, but it’s true: I’ve been coming down with something since Friday evening, powered through to make it to day two of StudentFems 2013, and last night I was awake until 4am with a rasping throat, high temperature, and swollen tonsils. Joy!
So, with the possibility of actually making it up to Manchester for the rest of the conference shrinking hourly, I thought I might at least write something about it. So here are some thoughts, unformed and perhaps illness-addled though they may be.
I’ve struggled with identifying myself as ‘disabled’ for some time, since I’ve never been disabled in the sense of receiving DLA or having a blue badge. But given my poor health over the last year (a long illness followed by post-viral fatigue) and the fact that I’m now an intermittent stick-user, it’s now pretty much a no-brainer that yes, I am definitely ‘disabled enough’ for the purposes of the NUS DSC.
It’s been my experience that the Disabled Students’ Campaign has been a lot more visible this year than in previous years, and I think that’s fantastic. I was pleased by the DSC’s release of mental health booklets for activists: reminders of why and how to take care of yourself, even when they seem blisteringly obvious, are sometimes incredibly useful when you’re caught up in the whirlwind of campaigning. Talking about mental health – and the unpleasant toll that fighting oppression as part of your daily life can take – is so, so vital and I’m glad that something like this exists in an official capacity. I know I burnt myself out quite hard in the third year of my undergrad, and I wish I’d had more of an understanding that sometimes it’s okay to stop and take care of yourself. Another thing I liked (on a similar theme of getting people talking about things) was the day of ‘coming out’ as disabled – dozens and dozens of student officers and activists publicly discussed their disabilities on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, some for the first time ever. I was impressed by the bravery and honesty on show – and also, by some of the critique that took place: the reminder that actually, people shouldn’t feel as though they are obliged to be ‘out’ about their disabilities, or to provide a list of diagnoses to prove their validity. While for those with invisible disabilities, ‘coming out’ is an important way to get a conversation going about stigma and assumptions, for people with more visible disabilities there’s the opposing problem of people defining you entirely by your disability: in which case, ‘coming out’ becomes moot. (Perhaps it seems strange to be in favour of the day and also to support criticism of it: I think that much of its value was in how it started conversations, and that certainly includes the conversation criticising or problematising some of the ideas behind it.)
Both of these happened under Hannah Paterson, the current Disabled Students’ Officer, who is running for re-election. Unlike most of the elections for NUS’ Liberation campaigns this year, this election is contested – Matthew Reuben is also in the running. Personally I think that’s brilliant – an election should be an election, not a coronation! (When I was re-running for my position last year I actually encouraged someone who was considering running against me, on that principle – but obviously, there’s quite a difference between a voluntary committee position and a paid full-time officer position…) So, on the topic of the election: I think Hannah has been excellent this year, and I’m sure if she is re-elected she will continue to do a great job. But at the same time, Matthew is an amazing activist and someone I’ve considered a good friend for quite a while now – he’s smart and compassionate and I’m sure the campaign would also flourish in his hands. So, I would in all honesty like to wish both the candidates good luck – both of them have the potential to take the campaign to new heights.