Participating in higher education often means significant disruption: school leavers lose most of what they knew and begin again, mature learners go through prominent upheaval preparing to study, perhaps years after they last did. The trauma, disorder and turmoil varies. In most cases we enter higher education as people who have somehow given something up to be there.
This movement can disproportionately affect disabled people. A physical relocation can mean sacrificing personal care, reducing or ceasing access to medical and social care. Life or death to ‘life as we know it’. We advocate hard to get our needs met in the first place: a relocation means a new fight, the same battle in a different war. A new local authority or service provider. Disparity in social care provision across the UK means the same level of support may not be available, a fact often not shared until the end of a lengthy administrative battle. It is exhausting.
Black Christian communities care between themselves – African and Caribbean cultures respect their elders and meet communally. Large Sunday meals between multiple families every Sunday without fail, for example. Regular visits to homes for social, fun – people coming to you and spending time. Socials on Fridays. Home groups on Wednesdays. Tuesday prayer meetings. Sunday Service, and everything in between. So much of our spiritual, social and physical needs are met through the Christian expression of love it is almost easy to forget this provision fills a need that should be met by the state and isn’t, or without the Church would not be filled at all. It mitigates some of the exhaustion caused by ‘living while disabled’. Life can be so integrated into the Church community that it isn’t until much later an individual realises the extent of the loss they have experienced.
And so begins a new battle: a Black disabled student – possibly reckoning with the true extent of their support needs for the first time, adrift in these common circumstances but feeling isolated and alone. This student must convince the higher education institution to provide the accessibility accommodations they are entitled to: a battle only made necessary due to institutional and systemic oppression. A fight to have the full equitable experience they are paying for, like everyone else. Repeated assessments, requests for evidence, liaising with new medical professionals to get the same proof of the diagnoses they have perhaps for years. In this space, what does the higher education institution become? Draconian, oppressive – another bureaucracy to battle. I cannot imagine any collective with good intentions wishing to become this.
If we get it right, and have a full consideration of the experience of these students then you can become a supporter, advocate, empowering those who participate to thrive. A Sunday alone after a lifetime of Sundays full of company, well, it can become one of the places where you wonder where God is. Especially in this context. The chaplain can perhaps begin to step into the gaps left by the home institution, networking and helping you find new people to pray with. Only this responsibility should not be borne by campus faith groups alone. A holistic approach to the academic success of students includes social and spiritual wellbeing, an intersectional approach maximises the opportunity to reach those otherwise neglected by traditional models of campus culture. As education becomes both more inclusive and inaccessible than ever during these remote times, there is a moment for higher education to progress beyond current expectations. That is, if we demand nothing less of and for ourselves.
Written by Hannah-Rebecca Eldritch April 2021