Disabled students at this university often lack a voice. The new Auckland University Disabled Students’ Association seeks to give them one.
Rough estimates suggest that over 3,000 students at the university have a disability, but you wouldn’t know it. Being a disabled student can be incredibly isolating, and there isn’t always a way to see that other students like you are out there. Whether in lectures, tutorials, labs, halls, clubs—we want to change that. We want there to be a community for disabled students at this university. As the Auckland University Disabled Students’ Association (AUDSA), you can find us working on this through hosting social events (both online and in person), engaging in advocacy, policy decision-making, and more.
We root our understanding of disability in the social model. This model takes focus away from seeing a person as being disabled, and instead views disability’s existence as a social phenomenon. It arises from the inaccessibility of the wider environment around us—whether that be a lecture recording without subtitles, or the stairs and hill down to the law library. It also includes other people’s attitudes and interpersonal interactions, which can also be disabling.
Whilst this model may not capture every facet of every disabled person’s experiences, it is a useful tool. It highlights disability’s existence beyond the individual, viewing socio-political change as key to the reduction of barriers. It also places the responsibility on society as a whole (and its institutions, like universities!) to improve and be accessible. This being said, for the health issue we wanted to share the disabling experiences of the Auckland University environment for some of our association members,but also where they found resilience, strength and support despite it all.
Salem- first year, BA in History and Criminology, City Campus (he/him)
“[Uni] would be a bit easier if there were some more sensory accommodations in lectures.eon yellow PowerPoint slides or fluorescent lights do not help. I combat this by wearing headphones nearly 24/7 on campus, but then have been called rude by lecturers, tutors and other students for wearing them during discussions—and I don’t enjoy having to repetitively explain why to people.
And captions. [They are] never on lecture recordings! As someone who gets overwhelmed in classes, I rely a lot on online lectures but need the captions to process information and take coherent notes.
I struggle with several chronic illnesses, mainly in the legs, so getting around city campus is a nightmare. The constant uphill and downhill to get from one building to another and make it to my next class takes its toll.
That said, with disability services’ help, I have managed to get an accommodation to do my exams in a smaller room with fewer people, and wear ear defenders when taking in-person exams due to my hypersensitive hearing, which has been essential!
Having other understanding people helps me feel safe and accepted in the university. I find that my friends are incredibly understanding when it comes to my disabilities, and helping me to get to class or giving me notes when I need them.”
Jess- PhD Candidate in Pharmacology, Grafton Campus (she/they)
“I have had lots of very damaging interpersonal experiences with staff and other students. Some people are actively harmful, but even the people who are just ignorant can be extremely upsetting. For example, people will ask about my mobility aid even if we are complete strangers, which is really invasive.
I’m immunocompromised which means that catching COVID-19 is extremely dangerous for me, and so I have had to stay away from campus a lot of the time. Now that I am back on campus, I wear an N95 mask, and have asked some others if they would wear masks, but unfortunately most people don’t. Especially now that people don’t have to isolate, campus is a dangerous environment for me. I often get dirty looks or comments for wearing a mask.
We have office spaces but the lighting, seating, and open plan format can cause chronic pain flares. I work as much as I can from home to avoid this, but it is quite isolating from my colleagues. Lab equipment can also be really hard to use and move between, meaning that I lose the ability to do other activities like cooking, cleaning etc. It makes me feel even more that I don’t belong in the university environment.
It’s really important for me to connect with people who also experience disability because it’s much easier to talk with them honestly about things, feel supported and less alone. Friends creating safe spaces for me to vent to them about things that have happened is also really cool.
Having flexibility to work from home and choose when I do lab-based work means that I can sometimes work my schedule around some impairment flares, etc, which makes life slightly easier for me. I really appreciate when my supervisors and colleagues support me in doing this.”
Alex- final year, BSc/BHsc in Biology and Population Health (She/Her): AUDSA Co-president
“Lots of things make uni difficult for me, but the biggest one is writing. Notes, essays and everything in between. My learning disabilities mean I struggle with getting words out in a coherent manner onto the page. So some assignments tend to take me a bit longer to work on, which isn’t always fun when friends want to know why I seem like I’m always studying and can’t come to Shads for a drink. Also, when lecturers don’t provide a copy of the slides before class-time, I find myself working overtime trying to keep up. It’s really hard to take down both what is being said and the words on the projector.
Sometimes though, the hardest thing I’m up against is my own internalised ableism. I find myself doubting if I’m ‘disabled enough’ to be relying on support services, or to be asking for help on assignments or extensions when I need them. It’s rough when you don’t just have to deal with your disability, but your own mind’s misperception of it.
Friends that just get this kind of thing matter so much. I made new friends later in my uni studies who might not have the same diagnosis as me, but still had their own experience of disability and were super empathetic. They’re always more than happy to step in to help, whether that be sharing notes, looking over an edit of my work or, when things get really hard, writing for me while I dictate. They have all shared with me that they too don’t feel ‘disabled enough’. Before then and it seems silly to look back on now, but for some reason I thought that was something only I experienced given my weird mishmash of diagnoses. It’s crazy to me sometimes how much knowing you’re not alone in a difficult feeling helps.
From these experiences, from having both disabled and non-disabled friends, I’ve realised how important having connection and community with other disabled students is. That’s why I stepped up to be AUDSA co-president even though I felt thoroughly unqualified. This university needs a community for us disabled students. I want each and every one of us to have friends that ‘get it’, and I really hope the club can help with that.”
The Auckland University Disabled Students Association is a space for all disabled students, no matter what their experience of disability is. We are working to build a community and a voice for ourselves at the uni.
If you would like to find out more about AUDSA or join, head over to our Instagram @disabeldstudentsassoc, or to see the awesome mahi happening on a national level, check out the national association @ndsaaotearoa.