In her own words, Amelia McLoughlan is known around Collingwood as “the chick in the wheelchair.” Instantly you have a picture of her in your head that screams disability. As President of Students with Disabilities Association, Amelia is fighting that image and the idea of disabled versus abled.
Amelia started her role last summer; her manifesto stressed the need for an active conversation and strategy for the total emergence of disabled students into university life. “The Exec are going to stand up and speak out. We have a responsibility to keep SwDA going because not many people are willing or able to. Who will speak out if I don’t?” Amelia asks.
Before her, Amelia told Palatinate how there wasn’t a Students with Disabilities Association. This was a result of students having medical issues and time off academia, as Amelia explains. Instead she aimed to “create consistency through a bigger Exec, which has worked quite well this year.” Amelia spoke with such enthusiasm about her job. “One of the privileges is going to the NUS Disability Conference” she tells us. “No one has to justify their disability or what they are.” Amelia also founded the Wheelchair Basketball Team. It is a mixture of able bodied and disabled. “Disabled sport is such a community. For the first time everyone is equal.” Durham’s disabled sport as a whole is something Amelia spoke so passionately about. Her pride for our Wheelchair team and Gemma Collis, student and Paralympic Fencing Champion, is evident.
Having completed a foundation year at Queen’s Campus, Amelia has experience of being a disabled student at both Durham campuses. Amelia would tell you that it is a very different experience; “The community there is close-knit, there are more disabled students per college and the small campus is more accessible.” However for Amelia, the biggest difference is in outlook. She continues, “In Durham City, there is a pressure to get involved. Queens, as a self-contained campus, does as much as it can and the students can be as involved as they want.” The expectation to be involved in extra-curricular is intense for anyone, disabled or able bodied. Along with the added pressures disabled students have to deal with in terms of access, this can make it unbearable. Amelia argues that accessibility is an issue for Durham as an institution. “People are either going up the road or down the road. Newcastle and Teesside are so much more accessible.” Shockingly, she revealed that many disabled students cannot attend all their lectures or essay hand ins because of access issues.
Amelia argues access is not just a problem for disabled students. “Access has to be visible – everyone has to know where it is.” Disability does not discriminate in terms of ‘who’; people are affected directly and indirectly for example having family or friends who identify as disabled. “Being in an environment that alienates this group is a lot more harmful than you initially think.” The classic retort to a bad ‘joke’ about disability is ‘well, they didn’t look disabled’. “IT IS NOT A THING”; Amelia is very clear on this. 70% of disability is invisible. Amelia also spoke about the lack of people declaring. Whilst it has increased from 8% to 10% this year, Amelia believes there are a still a lot more undeclared, especially being an elite university. If access is more visible, attitudes would change and the environment would be one of acceptance for all.
The label ‘disabled’ was something Amelia kept coming back to in her campaign for inclusivity. “Disabled students get the same marks and want to do the same things; they just have a different health profile or access requirements.” The perception of being either disabled or able-bodied is a binary in Durham. Amelia reveals that no one goes to forums or events because “they don’t want to be associated with the disabled people.” In reality the line is not so clear. At the moment, the SwDA make connections through people they know because most people are not actively seeking help or self-identifying as disabled. Amelia is fighting this. “It is natural that people do not want to be the odd ones.” However she argues that at Durham we need to make difference more visible and more accepted. At the moment, “there is a ‘Durham student profile’ and disability does not work with this.” In Durham specifically, we sell a student experience. As Amelia aptly points out “you can’t sell an experience that only able bodied people can get.”
She compares attitudes at university and school towards something as common as dyslexia. Commonality doesn’t diminish the issue but you would expect it to normalise it. In fact at university, Amelia believes she has encountered open discrimination. She quotes an anecdote of dyslexic students being caught out for clapping out of time in a drinking game resulting in the “deathly silence when they answer the question ‘are you dyslexic or something?’ with a ‘yes’.” This illustrates the ‘us vs them’ attitude that Amelia is trying to break down. At the moment she believes “if they’ll pass for normal, they’ll pass.”
Discrimination in institutions runs deep and not just in students. Amelia told controversial horror stories of students essentially being thrown out of university, which breaks the law. She told us of a widely reported story of a Cambridge student, who was suggested to go on leave without coming back despite being a top performer. Controversially Amelia says she can “understand why” the DSA cuts are proposed. However her fear is that in the past universities have used the DSA as an excuse not to take action themselves. Now there is no one to bring the gap. Nevertheless, Amelia does believe that the university have been “good at letting us come into meetings, meeting with the Equality and Diversity department and the Estates and Buildings team.”
Lastly, her advice to people for talking about disability, “just don’t be an arsehole.” She says that people are so scared to be offensive but “you can tell the difference between not knowing and people who are just arseholes.” If people want to know more, the SwDA are more than happy to educate.
A highly interesting and interested woman, Amelia will strike anyone who meets her as the perfect person to campaign on all our behalves for inclusivity.