Between the 15th – 17th May 2015 Chloe Hixson (Disabled Students’ Network Committee Member) and I had the pleasure of attending this years’ National Union of Students (NUS) Disabled Students’ Conference in Manchester. It was the first time for us attending a national conference so we were unsure what to expect but excited all the same.
We were placed in the Park Inn Hotel near Manchester Piccadilly station. And both us had to admit the accessibility of this hotel was beyond incredible. Chloe was staying in a standard room and she was fine in the facilities provided. Chloe is a wheelchair user and this stay highlights the pure accessibility of this hotel. Their standard rooms are adequate for individuals with mobility issues. The location of the hotel proved to be ideal. It was very close to the station, as we both found; our taxi rides to the hotel did not cost more than £10. An interesting note about Manchester black cabs, they are just as accessible as London cabs. Compared to my previous bad experiences in Birmingham and its’ black cabs, Manchester seemed to be far more geared up for wheelchair users.
The political side of the conference and the motions discussed we saw a very clear agenda focusing on the gravity of the austerity measures with all the unions present fighting in unison against the cuts to disabled benefits. We felt that this represented the concerns of our students fairly.
A particular motion, which we found to be of particular interest to us, was one in regards to having a representative for part time, mature and post graduate students. As a post graduate heavy institution we believed it was appropriate that we voted in favour of having this representation. This is predominately because these groups of students have very different concerns, including funding, mental health support and social requirements. For example, for a Masters student wishing to continue onto PhD, your application is helped by giving presentations at conferences in your field and this presents certain challenges to disabled students in particular such as funding and access.
It was illuminating to hear inter – sectional issues being raised at the conference and it increased our appreciation of the fact that issues that affect students with disabilities also has an impact on individuals from the other liberation campaigns. It also gave us an opportunity to discuss the issues with those who self define directly, this is the first either of us had the opportunity to do this on a more national level, beyond our institution
Aside from setting the political agenda for the Disabled Students’ Campaign on a nation level, the conference also plays a democratic role. It was an opportunity to vote in the new committee for the NUS Disabled Students’ Campaign and for our steering group. The positions on the committee to be elected were Disabled Students’ Officer, open place, 2nd NEC (National Executive Committee) place, Black students’ representative, LGBT representative, Women’s representative, International representative and the FE (Further Education) representative. The voting was split into caucuses, in which only self defining voting delegates could vote for, and elections for the new DSO, 2nd NEC place and open places, which all voting delegates could participate in. Out of all the caucuses that were being run we were only eligible to go to and vote in the Women’s Caucus. In this instance, since I don’t self define as a women, I waived my voting rights to Chloe. The first meeting of the caucus had more attendees than the elections, which Chloe suggested, that was weird. A variety of disabilities were represented. The most surprising issue in the caucuses we attended was the lack of mention of accessibility of red buses. As we felt that it would increase the safety of women attending university either part time or attending night courses. Chloe commented that it was a great experience meeting other disabled women. Having run for the place she said that while it was a daunting experience, she felt that it was rather liberating. The open atmosphere of the conference aided this, where everyone was given the chance to speak freely and without feeling intimidated.
The conference also provided a platform throughout, upon which we could develop, our own skills and knowledge to improve our Disabled Students’ Campaign on a more local level. On the Saturday and Sunday there were workshops designed to further our thinking and create networks to improve on our campaigning skills. Chloe and I both ended up going to campaigning oriented workshops on both days and we both gained very useful insights and connections from attending. Our highlights from these workshops included learning about the problem tree. The Problem Tree is a useful visual aid to capture the essence of the campaign through looking at the roots of the issues and the effects the change will have. The workshop I went to allowed me to connect with the other disabled students officers and learn about the impacts they’ve had on their campuses through the campaigns, which was encouraging hearing, and learning about the breadth and variety of issues being faced by disabled students across the nation.
Obviously it would not be fair to portray the conference as being all about business. There were of course some fun activities which lightened the mood and to get us mingling more.
Saturday evening saw us having a scrumptious dinner, which was shortly followed by the NUS Disabled Students’ Annual Award Ceremony. There were 4 awards up for grabs including NUS Disabled Students’ Campaign of the year, the NUS Disabled Students’ FE union of the year, the NUS Disabled Students’ HE Union of the year and NUS Disabled Students’ Activist of the year.
Unexpectedly, we were awarded the NUS Disabled Students’ Campaign of the Year 2015 for our ‘Try It’ campaign. It was a fantastic experience to be a part of the campaign and very rewarding to be recognised for our efforts. It was rather emotional to see a campaign, which I believed so much in and ran a manifesto on to, be recognised at a national event and it was a proud moment to be bringing the prize back to the union.
On both of the evenings, which we were staying at the hotel, the NUS Disabled Students Committee put on activities to keep us entertained and to give us more opportunities to mingle in a less formal environment. On the Saturday, after the awards there was a feminist disco, which was supposed to be a fun night to let our hair down after two arduous days of debating motions and policy. While it was enjoyed by most, there were concerns over inclusion. The nature of the disco format did not lend itself to those with mobility equipment and may have made some individuals feel excluded. This matter was raised with the committee the following morning and we were assured for next years conference, this issue would be taken into consideration to ensure that all members were able to fully participate in a way they felt comfortable.
All in all though, the 3 days we spent at the conference have to be one of my highlights of the year. Not just because we won an award, but the sheer fact we were able to meet and network with NUS and meet other disabled activists from the nation with whom we will endeavour to keep close connections with. Through supporting each other and achieve far greater outcomes and work together in achieving goals. Chloe and I will definitely be fighting for the observer position for next years’ conference.