Formed in 2021, the National Disabled Students’ Association (NDSA) is a non-partisan national body that represents disabled tauira in Aotearoa and aims to challenge the collective barriers they face within the tertiary education space.
A new report by Statistics New Zealand shows that New Zealanders with disabilities are more likely to experience loneliness and discrimination.
NDSA’s president Alice Mander (she/her) says the voices and experiences of disabled people are largely ignored, and that the tertiary sector is no exemption.
“The disabled community is criminally underrepresented in Aotearoa’s politics, society, and media.”
Stats NZ reports people with disabilities often suffer worse outcomes relating to their homes and neighbourhoods, and economic and social lives compared to neurotypical people.
Mander says issues facing the disabled community such as high poverty rates, experiences of violence, poor mental and physical wellbeing, and lack of accessible housing, are not being addressed.
“This undeniably contributes to feelings of loneliness and discrimination, and our main plan to support disabled students is to ensure that their experiences and issues are heard.”
Mander says it is about time disabled leaders are seen on a national level like other community leaders.
“We are here to bring disability justice to the table.”
NDSA endeavours to support and represent all tauira who identify as disabled in Aotearoa, and say intersectionality is at the core of their mahi.
According to the NDSA, disabled means “a diverse and complex phenomenon that reflects the interaction between an individual’s impairment and the barriers of their environment.”
“This includes but is not limited to, physical impairment, mental health and psychological conditions, learning and/or sensory forms of impairment, neurodiversity, and chronic illness.”
The association held their first Annual General Meeting in February, where a National Executive of disabled leaders were nominated by disabled tauira from around Aotearoa.
Originally from Tāmaki Makaurau, President Alice Mander is a fourth year student at Victoria University of Wellington. She was instrumental in the development of the association in 2020.
The President describes herself as a “proud physically disabled woman” who “lives and breathes disability justice and disability pride.” She says she looks forward to “empowering other disabled leaders and working to create a more accessible and equitable education system for all.”
Vice President Tangihaere Gardiner (They/Them He/Him) attends the Kokiri Centre through Otago Polytechnic. Through their role, Gardiner seeks to make sure “not only Te Tiriti is being upheld in the mahi of NDSA, but Te Whakaminenga o Te Rangatiratanga o Niu Tireni is also being upheld, and the information given to us through the Matike Mai report is referred to and used according to the Tikanga and Kawa of the documents.”
The executive also includes three general executive officers. Emma Cooper-Williams (She/Her) is a postgraduate student at the University of Auckland. Cooper-Williams says she has a lot of experience in disability activism and advisory and hopes her experience as a postgraduate student will bring more diversity to the NDSA.
Ella McFarlane (She/They) is a student at the University of Canterbury who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder as a child. McFarlane wants to ensure students on the spectrum and other neurodiverse students have representation and support to help them succeed.
Lauren Dewhisrt (She/Her) attends the University of Otago, and is the 2021 President of the Otago Disabled Students Association. Her focus will be on challenging the financial inequalities faced by students with disabilities.
A Representative Council of leaders of local disabled students’ associations will also share issues facing their respective communities.
“Most of our mahi will be ensuring that the experiences of disabled tauira are brought to the attention of Government agencies, the media, and tertiary institutions themselves.”
According to Stats NZ, people with disabilities reported having less access to support, and lower levels of trust in public institutions.
Mander says their main focus this year will be forming necessary relationships to ensure that the NDSA is a sustainable association and that disabled voices are included and valued at a national level.
“We look forward to continuing to forge relationships with the other students’ associations as well as ensuring that we are invited around the table in discussions with government departments such as the Ministry of Education and the Tertiary Education Commission.”
The association will also engage with other community focus groups including students with learning disabilities at supported learning courses at Polytechnics, and disabled students studying in Prisons and Corrections Facilities.
The primary goal of NDSA is to bridge the gap between institutions and diasbled tauira by elevating disabled student voices at local institutions and spreading the message of disability pride.
“In our knowledge, only Otago and Victoria University have a disabled students’ association while other campuses may have disabled student reps on their students’ association. We aim to help disabled students establish organisations at their own institutions, so please get in touch with us if you are keen to help out at Auckland Uni.”