Artwork by Emer Sukonik

Artwork by Emer Sukonik

Talking on Zoom with Tiri, I can’t help but be drawn to the paintings in the background. There are several watercolour depictions of various organs in the human body – the eye, the heart, some others which I’m ashamed to say my very limited medical knowledge failed me on. When we talk about her favourite ways to relax at the very end of the interview, she brings up the paintings, and quietly but excitedly says she hopes to paint the lungs next. I realise that I am talking to an incredibly passionate future doctor, someone whose self-care methods are still linked to her medical degree. But Tiri does far more than medicine alone – she is also both a talented gymnast and a dedicated disability activist. I’ve been on the SU Disabilities Campaign with her and also met up with her several times as a friend, but this is the first time I’ve sat down with Tiri and asked her about all the different things she does, and I’m more than a little bit blown away.

While she’s been incredibly involved with disability activism at Oxford, Tiri’s work actually started far earlier than university. “I’ve been involved in disability activism since I was really young. I think the first thing that I have a strong memory of was when I was about seven or eight and I went to Parliament for the Right to Read Campaign, basically lobbying publishers to provide electronic copies of books so that it’s quicker and easier and cheaper for charities like the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) to transcribe. This helps visually impaired people, but also works really well for anyone with a print disability like dyslexia. And I remember going along and I met Jacqueline Wilson, which was so cool. That’s when I first remember doing it, but I think I probably started when I was younger.” These beginnings led her all the way to Parliament, speaking at the House of Lords and then also giving evidence at a Parliamentary Select Committees (she cites the latter as one of her proudest achievements). 

She says that her passion for disability activism was cemented when she was at sixth form for the Royal National College for the Blind, but tells me about how her experience at sixth form contrasts heavily with what it’s currently like at Oxford. “I’d spent the three years before I was at Oxford in this wonderfully accessible environment, because it was all disabled people and the focus was 100%, all of the time on accessibility. I came to Oxford and suddenly had to bring that to the forefront of people’s minds. It reminds me a lot of when I was in secondary school and had to advocate a lot for what disabled people needed, and what I needed.” Oxford, in her opinion, is hindered by its inflexibility and the age and beauty of its buildings. “People are generally quite open to change when you suggest it, but getting things to actually happen is the issue. There’s opposition to really good ideas purely for reasons of traditionalism, and not really anything else.”

Close up head and shoulders picture of Tiri, with long wavy pale brown hair and slightly tinted glasses smiling at the camera, wearing a coral vest top with blurry trees in the background.
Tiri Hughes in Oxford.

The pandemic has shed light upon a lot of these traditionalist attitudes, both in Oxford and other universities. I ask Tiri about how she thinks COVID-19 has impacted accessibility, and she laughs softly and says “Yeah, I have a lot of opinions on this.” She finds it frustrating, but unsurprising, that lockdown and remote learning meant recorded lectures immediately became the norm, when disabled students have been asking for recorded lectures for years. “I think there was quite a lot of bitterness there. When a small minority group needs it, they can’t do it, sorry, it’s too expensive, it’s too complex. And then suddenly, everyone needs it, and it can be done relatively easily. This isn’t just at Oxford, this is across the country, in most universities. Hopefully, kind of moving on from that is that we’re going to retain this good progress that has been made.” 

She explains that accessibility is about more than just recording lectures, though. “For instance, you know, if you’re using a laser pointer, don’t just say here, here, here, but briefly describe what you’re pointing to. Captioning is a big issue, because it’s incredibly time intensive to caption, a lecture. But also, we need to make sure that it doesn’t just become a sort of COVID legacy that there’s this year worth of recorded lectures, and it doesn’t matter that you can’t get to your history lecture in 2024, because there’s a recorded one that’s four years old that we’ve got in the bank. Then, you’re gonna end up with a group of disabled students that are not learning from the same resources that non-disabled students are, and that wouldn’t be acceptable.” 

It’s been heavily reported that for many, poor mental health has been a result of the pandemic, but Tiri mentions how remote welfare support means many students end up falling through the cracks. “If you are a little bit withdrawn, it’s very easy to not get seen. That happens a lot, what with people being at home and just having sort of one or two Zoom calls a week with staff. It’s quite easy for people to start having a really difficult time and not get noticed.”

At the end of the interview, I ask Tiri what she does to relax amid her degree and all of her other responsibilities, and she smiles. “As someone who’s just finished finals, I don’t know the meaning of self care, but I’m getting back through it. I do a bunch of anatomy watercolour painting, which is like, still vaguely medical, but that’s very on brand for a med student, isn’t it? It’s everything. I’ve got, like, a heart and an eye and a liver and various cells. I also love playing the piano and taking my lovely guide dog for walks. Especially when it’s not raining because otherwise I have to wash her off and that’s not fun for either of us.” I find myself immensely grateful that Tiri does medicine and is here for three more years. I’ve had many conversations with Tiri complaining about how hard it can be doing a degree at a university which ultimately is still not designed to be accessible to all, to be struggling with mental health problems when the system will only properly help you when you’re at your very worst. But complaining to Tiri is different. It’s not just bitching to a friend but ultimately accepting the remaining inequalities; these are issues she won’t accept, and she’s fighting to change. I can’t think of anyone better for that task than her. 

Ellie Redpath

I'm Ellie (she/her), a third year classicist at Magdalen and your disability columnist for this year! Activism and writing are my passions so I'm hoping to combine them in this column. You can usually find me procrastinating in one way or another - working on things with the SU Women's Campaign, dreaming of the day charity shops can open again, and spending far too much time on Twitter.