By Jamie Walker; Campaigner and SNP Member
In my role as an Ambassador for One in Five I want to raise the profile and contribute to the success and growth of One in Five. In my role as an ambassador I wish to contribute to the discourse around disability both physical and mental. In doing so it is important to address the inequalities which exists as well as the challenges that we as a collective society need to overcome.
In my last article I argued that in order for a fairer and more equal society to be achieved we must engage with those who for so long have struggled to become involved. This does not just happen in society at large, in the work place but it also must happen within our education institutions. All universities, colleges and schools need to ensure fair representation and opportunities for disabled students to participate so they can shape their learning and overall student experience. And as students from across the country are filtering back or for the first time starting university, college or school I feel it is important to focus on education.
Student life is an enjoyable experience. Meeting new people, moving to a new place, learning new things and experiencing new things is exciting. Student life is fast-paced, a new event to go too, socials to attend which friends and student groups, a class to attend and even a new piece of class work to complete. Student life is an amazing experience and I have enjoyed immensely. However of course there are harsh realities in student life and in order to facilitate change and greater participation we need to tackle these problems head on, remove the anxiety so there are no obstacles in the way of disabled students.
According the research conducted by the National Union of Students in 2013 there are many issues which need to be addressed. In their survey of 1,200 student 20% of students responded saying that they suffer from a mental health problem. Out of the students surveyed 92% said that they had suffered some form of mental distress which includes feeling demotivated, stressed and generally feeling down. In addition 74% of students said that they experienced these feelings at least one a month and 13% said that they had experienced suicidal thoughts. The cause of such results are varied but remind us why we need to constantly support students. Research found that 65% of students felt that course work caused their stress. 54% of respondents said that studying for exams and the exams themselves contributed to them feeling stressed. Finally, 47% of respondents said that financial difficulty contributed to them feeling unwell. Universities, much like my own in Stirling have disability policies. For example since being ill I have had support emotionally in that I can speak to my mental health mentor, plan my studies and speak openly about the way I’m feeling. Areas of the university are open and accessible. However it is clear there needs to be a much larger discussion about how we can improve the overall student experience. This will include ensuring that deadlines, classes and access to tutors can fit around the students’ needs and indeed their life. Financially it is clear that students who suffer from disabilities will incur more costs for example travel and equipment. Indeed students across the board on many occasion struggle to make ends meet with a combination of rent, food costs, study material and travel costs.
A political solution is once again needed to address the issues that disabled Scots face at university. University is full of participation and for many students it is the arena where they have their first taste of political activism. Students Unions and the roles which they have, offer students the opportunity to shape their own education and the education of their peers, influence university policies on a range of matters from accommodation to student societies and engage with the wider student population through organisations such as the Scottish National Union of Students. Student politics offers support to students, it gives students a voice and an opportunity to participate in university life. In my last article I argued that for society to change and break down the barriers that disabled Scots face then we need to involve disabled Scots in the decision-making process. The same applies to university and indeed all of education in Scotland, for the barriers facing disabled students to be removed, disabled students need to be empowered and given access to participation. Recently both the Scottish Government and COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) have released action plans to improve the rights of disabled Scots and improve they ways they can participate in political life. These plans both embrace the One in Five Charter and I look forward to seeing them being implemented. I now believe it is time and I strongly urge Student Councils, Students Unions, the Scottish NUS and the NUS to sign up to the One in Five Charter and to develop their own plans to protect the rights of the disabled and allow the access to participation.
There are a number of areas which can be reformed. The roles which students occupy need to be reformed to ensure that disabled Scots can be supported and that there is no unnecessary strain placed upon them. I would encourage all students unions to make sure that roles and flexible, made to suit the occupants ability and talent and also their needs. Venues for decision making and discussion should be accessible at all times with equipment available to support disabled students. I know for example at the university I attend, Stirling University, many events are used in lecture theatres with disabled access. To add to this for students who physically or emotionally cannot make it along to events, they should be recorded and easily accessible online for students so they can understand what decisions are being made. Forums can then be set up so questions and solutions can be created. Even during meetings I would also argue that Skype participation can be used. Crucially issues facing disabled students must be highlighted and solutions need to be incorporated into equality and inclusiveness measures.
As I mentioned before I strongly urge all school Student Councils, university and college Student Unions, Representative Councils and the NUS in Scotland and in the UK to back the One in Five campaign, sign the One in Five Charter and develop their own plans to ensure greater participation amongst disabled people and students. The roots of a progressive and equal society start with an inclusive education system and experience.