I just went back to read last year’s BADD offering. There, I confidently stated that I hadn’t experienced disabilism at uni and didn’t expect to. I wish… oh… how I wish I could say the same thing this year. But I cannot, and that makes me extremely sad.

I’m very unsure how much in the way of detail to give about this, mostly because lessons have been learned, which is the most important part. I feel its important to get that out there right away: that the response of the University was fantastic, they acted straight away to ensure that what happened that day never happens again to anyone else. Which makes it sound far worse than it actually was, but I do want to write about it… and the impact that it has had on me.

As part of my degree studies this year, I had to take part in a group project, delivering a group presentation which was graded – everyone on my course did. Its a fairly standard part of degree studies these days as so many people have to go on to take part in a group project or give at least one presentation in their working lives at some point and having the group project experience really adds to the C.V. I really enjoyed my group project. I won’t say what it was about, its irrelevant to this, but the people I was working with were fantastic – five of us in total and they worked really well with my interpreter, and made allowances for me the few times we had to meet without an interpreter (including the memorable, and unavoidable occasion we had to meet in a very noisy student’s union – and they were fantastic at scribbling things down!).

No, my experience of disabilism wasn’t from them; although one might have expected that. It came during the group presentation. We’d been told that we had to give the presentation to two other groups, we were all doing presentations on similar period of history, and we all had to listen to each other’s, and to pose questions to each other at the end of each other’s presentation – how well we responded to those questions would form part of the grading structure. I had arranged, since it was going to be a long afternoon, for two interpreters to be present, to spell each other. they were sat at the front, next to the people giving the presentation, in a largish room (and for a notetaker to be present – who was seated to the rear). the first presentation began: one of their team was late and kept us waiting for 15 minutes. Eventually they were told to start without him, which i can imagine rattled the team quite badly (and he showed up 5 minutes into the presentation, to murderous looks from his team!). One of the team then began to speak. He was undeniably nervous, whether the lateness of his fellow team member had made that worse, I don’t know, but he was mumbling and speaking very very quietly. Neither of the interpreters could hear him, and they were sitting 2 yards away from him! The assessors were at the rear of the room. The interpreter stopped him, apologised, said that she could not hear him and asked him to repeat what he had just said. he did so. the presentation continued. The interpreter had to stop him again… and again. On the third time that she stopped him, one of the assessors got up, came to her and asked her to stop interrupting him. The interpreter protested and said that it had been agreed with the other assessor that she could do this, and that She (pointing to me) had a right to access what was going on.

What we didn’t know then was that the assessors had been told by the university that they were not allowed to interrupt on the basis of not understanding what they were saying. If the presenters could not be understood they were to be marked down accordingly. This was to give everyone a fair chance, to make sure that each and every team being assessed was being treated equally. Which was fair enough; except that no one had told us. And it led to a situation where the Assessor was torn between making sure I had equal rights and obeying the rules governing the assessment (which were, and are, and need to be, as strict as the rules governing examinations, for example). Unfortunate, bad planning, yes, absolutely, but the only incidence of disabilism thus far was in the university’s failure to plan ahead and to see a situation where this could have arisen. Its not like they didn’t know I was there and the University has an AccessAbility office which should have been involved in the planning for this kind of thing – as it was, it was left to me and my interpreter to bring up the issue of communication support a couple of weeks before the assessment.

That much, I could understand, as could the interpreter, although we found this all out later. It was what the assessor did next that was really beyond the pale. When the interpreter protested that I had a right to access what was going on, the Assessor’s response was: “she’ll have to make do with the handout”. and that was the end of it – he sat down and the interpreter had no choice but to continue to interpret what she could hear, and do the best she could in a bad situation.

Now… this was disabilist on several levels. 1) it was directly discriminating against me, preventing me from accessing information on the same level as everyone else. 2) It was discriminating against me because it was telling the rest of the people in the room that it was okay to discriminate against me, that its convenient to shove the rules aside when it suits them. 3) The tone in which he spoke implied, and perhaps I am being oversensitive here, that he thought I should be damn lucky to get the handout and that I really should just siddown and shuddup and stop making his life difficult. And finally, it was actually discriminating against my classmates. By preventing me from accessing what was going on, it prevented me from asking questions at the end. The purpose of the questions is not just to be marked; it was also to give the group a chance to consider alternative perspectives from outside the group, which could then subsequently be built into their group report, giving them a chance to increase their marks, expose any weaknesses, and so on. While I don’t claim to be any kind of genius, by preventing me from being able to ask those questions, it essentially meant that any feedback I could have offered the other two groups was removed.

The assessor was someone who had actually taught me the previous year. He knows what I’m capable of. He has had multiple interpreters and notetakers in his class. He knows that this is not just a “tickbox exercise”, that this is a genuine need of accessing what is going on in order to contribute to the class. More to the point, and more shockingly, he was the Accessability Officer for the School of Historical Studies that semester. Part of his job is to liase with the AccessAbility office to make sure that all the material used by the School of Historical Studies is accessible to people with disabilities. For him to speak in the way that he did was not only unnecessary, but worse, disabilist as well. Not in a deliberate, “I hate disabled people” way (I’m sure he doesn’t, and would be horrified if he heard this story from someone else) but in an unthinking way, in the sense that deafness hasn’t impacted on him, that he hasn’t considered the implications of what he was saying. Which, in some ways, was worse than if it had been said with malice.

After this confrontation, I was extremely upset. I was shaking, angry, upset and distressed. That I managed to hold it together enough to deliver my own presentation was a minor miracle – I know it affected my delivery of it, rattled me enough that I stumbled a lot and it was anything but the smooth presentation I had given in the practice run a few days earlier. After the whole thing was over, and everyone bar the assessors had gone, I stayed to talk to them, along with my primary interpreter. I tried to make them understand how the whole thing had made me feel, but the assessor that had caused the issue was more interested in telling me that “I wouldn’t be penalised for the whole thing”, and refused to listen to what I had to say. In fact, he was NOT-listening and interrupting me so much that at one point I had to actually stop him and says “I was talking, would you actually do me the courtesy of letting me finish?”. I think he realised he had messed up and just wanted to be anywhere but there, which is understandable on the human level but… honestly? If he had just apologised and explained what had caused the situation and apologised for his reaction, that he was caught on the wrong foot, we would have understood. Neither of us (my interpreter and me) are PC-mad, we would have understood that, c’est la vie. Shit happens, as my father-in-law is wont to say – and let it go.

I was ready, at that point, to put in a full complaint and take it all the way to the top. The School’s reactions – or, perhaps more accurately, the reactions of the Head of the School and the other assessor, pre-empted that. the head of the school heard what had happened, realised it must not happen again, and asked the other assessor to write a report suggesting changes to ensure it didn’t happen again. That assessor asked both myself and the interpreter to meet with him to discuss what had happened and to make our own suggestions for avoiding this. We did, and the report was subsequently written. I am told that future presentations will be changed so that no assessors are put in that position again, and that some deaf awareness training will be included as part of the “giving a presentation” lecture that we all received as part of that module before the presentation. Other things have also been put in place: its clear that the University understood that what happened was unacceptable and that they needed to step up to the plate – which they did.

I haven’t seen the assessor since. I remain very angry about his reaction, because I have received no apology from him. I resolved to avoid having him for a dissertation supervisor, and thankfully, that has happened. I could well wind up with him as a teacher for next year. I don’t know how I will handle that if it does happen.

But more than that, I want to talk about how this has affected me. I feel disillusioned. Not about the University (their response was great and if anything I’m really proud of how they handled it). But about the individual. I had hoped – perhaps foolishly, perhaps naively, that things were getting better, that people were understanding more, that the idea that someone disabled should “have to accept things” had gone. Its clear that I was wrong.

This happened last December. Since then I have been plagued with dreams – no, nightmares – of an extremely misogynistic, disablist company I used to work for about 15 years ago. A company that tried everything they could to get rid of me after first hiring me to make themselves look good on the equal opportunities sheet. I don’t think its a co-incidence that they have come back after 15 years – the incidence at university has stirred up a lot of bad memories. But all that makes me wonder: Am I over-reacting – is it the bad experience from 15 years ago that is driving my feelings about what happened at that presentation last December? I find it very difficult to seperate the two – and I know that part of the anger I feel towards that assessor has to do with blaming him for stirring up all this stuff, making me have to deal with it all over again. And I need to be careful: that when, and if, I do have to deal with him again, that I don’t unfairly blame him – he isn’t responsible for what happened 15 years ago.

What is clear is that since then, I have been … ultra-sensitive to any potential incidents of disablism at uni. One of my teachers is foreign; her attitude and an incident in class made me question whether she was expressing prejudice towards me on the basis of my disability. I had to get external verification that she actually probably wasn’t, before I could let it go within myself (the teacher in question knows nothing of this, this is an internal battle). I hate that ultra-sensitivity, that anger. That’s what I mean about being dissillusioned. I feel like one of those ultra-PC people who go around with massive chips on their shoulders, seeing prejudice everywhere, even places it really doesn’t exist. I don’t want to be that way. I really don’t.

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