Grassroots Activism by Expertise
Disabled Students UK was created after a 2020 report describing widespread disability discrimination at a London university was spread, eliciting recognition from disabled students at a variety of universities. Until then disabled student networks had been highly disconnected but with the spread of the report it became clear to us that our experiences were shared and how much more powerful we are if we share information and work together.
When we came together we quickly realised that one of the main things missing in the sector was the knowledge that disabled students have around accessibility, starting to share this expertise was the next logical step.
The next generation
When a new way of doing things develops there is often an initial confusion, so too when DSUK was established. The Higher Education sector has historically allowed three roles for disabled people: The charity case, who receives help from abled people, the supercrip, who inspires abled people through “overcoming” their disability, and the angry activist, who demands unreasonable change. DSUK fits into neither of these stereotypes (few disabled people do).
What we do within Disabled Students UK could be called “activism by expertise”. Although this is a form of disability activism that is mostly forreign to non-disabled people in the sector, it is not actually new within the disabled community. If you look for them you will find disabled people using their expertise to create change within businesses, charities, and yes activist organisations.
Wikipedia: “Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, direct, or intervene in social, political, economic, legal, or environmental reform with the desire to make changes in society toward a perceived greater good.”
If activism means an effort to bring about positive change, what does it mean to do so through expertise?
- We go about creating change in a strategic way
- We play to the strengths of our community, often arising from our academic qualifications and lived experience
- Our work is evidence based in the sense that we are driven by data
- Our work is also evidence base in the sense that we listen intently to the lived experience of disabled students.
Legally DSUK is a non-profit Community Interest Company (Company number 13326995). Being a non-profit means that any profit that we make is reinvested into the business rather than extracted by our board members. The advantage of being a CIC is it allows us to start making an income, which in turn makes it sustainable for the organisation to be run by disabled people.
Our governing documents
At our core we are a Disabled Persons Organisation but we try to combine the best that several different types of organisations have to offer.
We strive to be:
- Grounded and collaborative like a disabled student network
- Evidence based like a research institute
- Results focused like a business
- With the non-profit social aims of a charity
To understand better how we operate, read “contributing to DSUK” and our “community culture”
Ok, but why are you not a charity?
The disabled community and the charity sector have a complicated history. The charity model of disability has often been used to infantilize and take power away from disabled people, with decisions being made for rather than by disabled people. In this model accessibility is something provided to non-disabled people as a kindness or charity, rather than a right. As a continuation of this model, the work of disabled people to increase accessibility is often not compensated. Many of us in DSUK have experience of being asked to do unpaid labour at our university, not just to put our own access in place, but often to provide access consulting for our whole department or university.
Our work at DSUK aims to increase the social good and we offer many services to students for free – in that sense it is charitable. However our work is led by disabled people, for disabled people and the services we provide to universities and other stake-holders are not free (Our policy on pro-bono work ) In this sense we are removing ourselves from the charity model of disability.
The power of community
Disabled Students UK is a community organisation both in its structure and operations. We created the organisation after a 2020 report describing widespread disability discrimination at a London university was spread, elicited recognition from disabled students all over the UK. When we started exchanging stories, we could see how our shared knowledge could transform Higher Education.
Being composed of current and former disabled students is our biggest strength. We are united by the desire to make Higher Education more accessible and avoid more students going through what we have gone through. Contributing to our operations allows those with lived experience of being disabled at university to channel their voice, expand their expertise and get invaluable employment skills.
There are three ways of being a part of DSUK – as a contributor, a volunteer or a Director.
All members of our Facebook working group are considered contributors. The group currently has 400+ disabled student activists from 60 different universities. This group and subgroups (such as those focusing on research, the complaints process, university-based activism etc.) connect previously fragmented networks of disabled students across the UK. Coming together across universities, we share information to avoid reinventing the wheel within each university and see patterns more clearly at a national level.
It is essential for our organisation that we raise and incorporate the experiences of our contributors, including those that cannot currently volunteer. Each Director is required to detail how they are listening to and reflecting disabled students’ experiences. We regularly create polls and ask for input in this group. Occasionally we also ask for specific work to be done and put on co-working sessions. Such opportunities are ideal for those who want to contribute but cannot commit regularly.
Our Community Culture document helps keep our community a healing space.
The idea behind DSUK was always to create a platform for disabled students to use their voices rather than speaking as a sole representative. For those who want to get more involved and commit some time to the organisation each week, there is the option of becoming a volunteer.
As volunteers, we all have lived experiences of issues in accessing our education. Most have years of experience as activists at our university, mobilising the disabled student body, creating information campaigns or influencing decision-makers. This gives us unique insight into the issues and solutions associated with HE accessibility.
Too often, disabled student activists crumble under expectations that they should do activism in the same way as non-disabled activists. At DSUK, we have a disability-informed structure that builds on strengths, supports weaknesses and allows contributors to participate at the level they have the capacity for at the time. For one, all of our work is performed online, and we do not have fixed working hours. We emphasise accessibility, collaboration and clear communication around limitations and ask volunteers to write down essential access requirements when they join us.
The Directors have the ultimate legal and operational responsibility for the organisation. DSUK currently has 4 Directors: