I was looking up stats from the Big Cambridge Survey for a CUSU council motion last week, and was shocked – but not altogether surprised – to find that although 25% of respondents reported having some form of health condition, only three percent self-identified as disabled. I knew from several years of being involved, through friends and later as a committee member, with the Disabled Students Campaign that engagement and self-identification was a thorny issue, but I hadn't seen the scale of it in terms of numbers quite so starkly before.
So what are the barriers that stop students identifying as disabled? The first is a definition issue; many students who legally “count” as disabled, particularly students with mental health issues or certain specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia, are unaware that they have the option to self-identify. I've had friends with multiple mental health related conditions ask me before if they're allowed to vote in disabled students’ elections. Part of this issue is naturally the systematic veiling of disability issues, both on the level of institutions and of wider society; if the government and other bodies can get away with not giving disabled people the support they need and deserve, they will try to avoid doing so. This applies for all disabled people of course – physical conditions are no less invalidated than mental ones – but cultivating a lack of awareness of what “counts” as disability is a big part of that deception and avoidance of responsibility.
A further barrier is one that many people at Cambridge, disabled or not, will relate to – imposter syndrome. Many of my friends with depression or anxiety feel that their issues aren't “serious” or important enough for them to self-identify as disabled. I can understand where this comes from – until realising I had fibromyalgia, a chronic pain and fatigue condition, I hadn't been particularly involved in disability activism, despite already being diagnosed with depression. One of the most important things that we as disabled activists need to consider is how to rally the people who feel they don't have “serious enough” disabilities, validate that they are in fact deserving of support and community, and figure out how to join us all together to fight for our collective liberation – we need as many of us as possible.
The issue of internalised ableism, however, is another barrier to overcome. Of course, this is very often directed at oneself, as a part of imposter syndrome especially; but there is also a pervasive attitude among some that they aren't disabled because being called disabled is somehow derogatory or negative. This is a crucial myth to bust. Spreading the social model of disability is important here – I am not “disabled” because of a set of personal or character failings, but because society is set up to exclude or disadvantage me in various ways. I am disabled by the assumption that everyone can climb multiple flights of stairs. I am disabled by capitalism's insistence that being a valuable person means being able to work a 40 hour week.
It's important not to be prescriptive in disability activism – like with LGBT+ activism, an essentialist view that someone must identify in a certain way is unhelpful and contrary to the goals we're aiming towards. But it is also necessary to break down the barriers that might stop people from identifying as disabled, preventing them from getting the adjustments they deserve – and drawing lines of separation in a community that needs solidarity, needs to have one another's backs, in order to make a better world for us all.