VP Union Development: Disabled students are underrepresented in LUSU

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LUSU VP Union Development, Laurence Pullan, has spoken about how underrepresented students with disabilities are in LUSU. Repeated elections indicate that few, if any, disabled students run for positions within the Union, and there is currently no LUSU officer mandated to provide representation to students with disabilities. Pullan thinks that part of the problem is that there have been no previous campaigns for disability awareness by previous Full Time Officers.

When asked how many students have disabilities on campus, Pullan said “it’s very difficult to actually give an accurate figure or percentage on how many students have disabilities, as although the university has a record of those who declare having a disability, there are many that don’t, and it’s these students – as well as those that identify as being disabled – that we need to help as best we can.”

A study by the University of Essex suggested that declaring yourself disabled to your university could be seen as stigmatising, and that some students were uncertain as to whether the category of ‘disabled’ included people with their condition. Pullan stated that he disagrees with the ethics presented in the Essex study, and that representation is the way to change that. “I was saying that the suggestion of there being a stigma attached to disability in itself is wrong and that one way to work toward countering that would be, I think, to ensure there is guaranteed representation of disabled students. I went to the NUS Liberation Activism Conference and Hannah Paterson, NUS Disabled Students seat, described disability as society’s failing in not accommodating, and in fact excluding, people in everyday participation.”

However, confusion over the term ‘disability’ may be a reason as to why students at Lancaster are not registering themselves as disabled. A former Lancaster student did not register that he was a Type 1 Diabetic with the university. He said, “I was not sure of the conditions classification, and was worried that I might be stopped from taking part in certain activities.” Although diabetes is covered under the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, it is still a condition that causes confusion as to whether or not it is a disability. Pullan said, “We need to look at ways of showing support to those students who, in the case of disability, have no record with the university, but still require on-going help and advice.”

He extended this to say that the way students see themselves may also be a contributing factor. “I think disability can be something you self-define too. Do you need to be on a university record of disability to class yourself as disabled? Could being dyslexic for example also be seen as a disability? I don’t see there being stringent rules on which disabled students can run and which can’t.”

This raises the question as to why LUSU currently have no officer which represents these students. Pullan thinks that this is due to the previous administration’s decisions about representation. “Last year Ste Smith – the president – underwent a CCO change where he cut down the number of Cross Campus Officers… Liberation groups slowly disappeared, and actually I think we made the wrong decision.

“We’ve cut seats for liberation groups on [Union] Council and actually that’s something I’m desperate to bring back… It might be at that point that we realise we can do better, by collaborating with activities groups and the students’ disabled services for example. One of the ways I think is best for doing it is by having a seat on Council for disabled students.”

One of the reasons that LUSU is keen to change this situation is the statistics. Pullan told SCAN: “if you look at surveys and things like that, disabled students on average leave Lancaster around twenty percent less satisfied than other students and that’s quite a shocking statistic. It needs addressing. Whether it is by introducing CCOs, a seat on Council, or by looking at other ways we can approach disabled students. Clearly the figures show that there’s a definite need for some sort of better representation for disabled students.

In regards to the lack of representation that disabled students have within LUSU, the next Union Council meeting will include discussion of a document that addresses the topic of liberation groups. The meeting will take place on the Thursday, Week 7, and will open up discussions about reintroducing seats on Council for a BME Student (Black Minority Ethnic), Women’s Officer, and Disabled Student. At the moment the only Cross Campus Officer that directly represents a liberation group is the LGBTQ* Cross Campus Officer.  The document also raises the potential for wider representation for mature students and parents.

Pullan was keen to stress that support for disabled students is available. “At the moment our Aid and Support Team are great and work on very specific disability issues. But we do also work with the university’s Student Based Services and the Disabled Services in particular, because they do have dedicated staff that work with disabled students.”

Although students with disabilities are currently underrepresented in LUSU, the Full Time Officers are clearly aware of this and are therefore undertaking measures to try and rectify the situation. In relation to these measures, Laurence Pullan stated, “It’s our responsibility to make sure that we represent all students.”

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