There have been times, since coming to Oxford, in which I have wanted to reverse time and shake my seventeen-year-old self for ever once believing that this University is a place for people like me. Of course, this is not a feeling limited to myself or my experience, and even those who face barriers much like my own will not necessarily conform to my thoughts and opinions on the matter. This is the very nature of being human and having freedoms that so many people are unable to access; so, in this sense, I am in a privileged enough position to be able to speak up on my own behalf. In what could be viewed as a selfish endeavour, I have taken it upon myself to tell everybody and anybody who will listen the brutal and lonely reality of being a disabled student – in hopes that one person will not just hear me but listen to me and be able to offer hope of a more inclusive future at Oxford.
The truth of the matter is that it appears entirely impossible for Oxford to ever accommodate its disabled population, who make up almost 10% of the undergraduate student body, fully. In between listed buildings, bureaucratic administration, and an all-too-frequent disregard of the concerns of disabled students, many are left feeling neglected and without the necessary accommodations to allow them to reach their full potential. Students and JCRs are facing many of the same arguments now that they were several years ago – as the degrading torch of being ‘that person’ who complains about the accessibility of every event, exam arrangement and administrative approach is passed throughout the disabled student body year to year.
Oxford, as many other institutions, is not without its embarrassing attempts at virtue signalling either. My own college offered apology emails for its lack of accessible accommodation, lift access and how it has previously allowed for vulnerable students to ‘slip through the net’ during Covid, whilst offering little in the way of real, concrete plans for effective change. Although, as somebody who is disabled and chronically ill, it is not a shock to the system to experience such ineffectual and blasé attitudes towards my needs – even when it can be a matter of life and death. Perhaps the worst part of it all is not the blatant disregard of necessary adjustments, but the isolation of living in a place where often administration, staff, and students alike care little for making small adjustments should it act as any kind of inconvenience to themselves.
My first term in Oxford was spent as a one-person household in college accommodation usually reserved for third years. It is one of the only accessible rooms in college. Left without the bonding that many other students had with their households, I increasingly found my motivation to remain as a student here depleting. Virtual events were a big no-go, with most people showing up to Zoom calls with a few people around a table or in somebody’s bedroom, whilst I sat on mute and felt my chest sinking as laughter and conversation buzzed around the chat that, more often than not, forgot I was even there.
This was far from the worst it would get, as contracting Covid two days after an A+E visit left me unable to leave the four walls around me for almost two weeks. In this time, my college did not check in on me as they did other isolating households, and I found myself withdrawing from the few friends I had managed to make by this point. As someone now classed as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, Covid put me at great risk of further complications that could have hospitalised or killed me, yet all the administration of my college did in response to realising that I had been forgotten by them (three months after my recovery) was to barely apologise. I had ‘slipped through the net’, they claimed, and they would try not to do it again.
Considering all the previous ways in which I was left isolated compared to my peers it appears to me that the ‘net’ used to detect vulnerable students is cut so that the rope catches only what the University wishes to display as a symbol of progress and intersectionality; in truth, this could not be any further away from the reality of many disabled students. Oxford does not simply ignore the needs of some of its most vulnerable students, but actively forces them to adjust to the environment of those who do not face the hurdles of chronic illness, disability, and mental illness, to name but a few. I will reiterate once more that I do not and cannot claim to speak for all disabled people, the disabled experience is far too broad to generalise in such a way; I cannot even fully express my own account in so few words. However, I have one question that can, at very least, summarise the sentiment of this particular account: how many more have suffered and will continue to suffer before this institution realises how much it needs to change?