Cramming what could easily have been a week’s worth of speeches, panels, policy debates, reports and elections into a two-day conference definitely had the potential to turn into chaos, but the 2019 NUS Disabled Students’ Conference was anything but, instead providing an insightful forum for very timely discussions about the issues facing disabled students across the UK, and an exciting learning experience for someone who, admittedly, had never attended an NUS event before and was initially a little apprehensive about how it would all work.
Before the conference officially began, all of the delegates were briefed on how the two days would run, and how we could all ensure that the event would be as accessible as possible for everyone involved. For example, we were asked to use British Sign Language applause throughout the conference sessions, something which has also recently been introduced for events at Manchester SU. This was for the benefit of hearing aid users (because of the hearing loop in the room, clapping could have been uncomfortably loud for some people) and delegates with sensory conditions, but I also thought it improved the atmosphere of the whole conference – because the BSL applause was silent, it meant that we could show our agreement with points made by the speakers without interrupting them, which really helped to create a general feeling of support and appreciation for what was being said.
The conference opened with the keynote speech by Paula Peters from Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC), an organisation dedicated to highlighting the local and national impact of austerity on disabled people. This speech reiterated what for many of us was already well-known: that recent welfare reform has been disastrous, with the UK government becoming the first to be found guilty of “grave and systemic human rights violations towards disabled people” by a UN investigation in 2016. One area of welfare reform which was highlighted several times, both in Paula’s speech and in other conference sessions, was Universal Credit, which has been linked to a 90% increase in food bank use in areas where it has been rolled out. DPAC has been protesting Universal Credit and other welfare reforms since they were first introduced, and Paula gave several examples of direct action which the organisation has been involved in, including occupations of Parliament Square in 2011 and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2012, and a number of legal cases against the government, many of which have been successful. However, she also emphasised that you do not have to be physically present in order to be part of the protest, and mentioned DPACs social media initiatives (including a current campaign to persuade the Labour party to commit to scrapping Universal Credit at the next general election) and the potential for new forms of protest involving virtual reality, which are currently being trialled.
The second highlight of day one was the motions debate, where nine motions were presented to be voted on by the delegates. Many of the motions had near-unanimous support, and I voted in favour of most of them, including motions to support ending AIDS stigma and free PrEP on the NHS, accessible healthcare for trans people and increasing NUS’s online accessibility. Only one motion generated significant debate; this motion called for the NUS Disabled Students’ Campaign to reaffirm its solidarity Palestine and support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Speeches in favour noted that many people in Palestine suffer from PTSD and do not have reliable access to mental healthcare, and that disabled people’s organisations have a long history of solidarity with Palestine, while speeches against the motion raised concerns about BDS, including the potential impact of boycotts on Israeli workers, and about the possibility of alienating Israeli students from the DSC (Disabled Students' Campaign). The motion eventually passed, but since DisCam has never discussed our position on the issue, I chose to abstain from the vote. In the end, all nine motions passed either in their original form or with small amendments.
The sessions ended in the late afternoon, but most people stayed on the conference floor to have dinner. This was a great opportunity to hear about the work the other delegates had been doing at their universities, as well as a chance to chat informally with the candidates who would be standing for election the next day and read through their manifestos.
The second day opened with the elections for Disabled Students’ Officer, National Executive Council rep and the DSC Steering Committee. Piers Wilkinson, last year’s NEC (National Executive Coucil) rep, was the only candidate for DSO (Disabled Students' Officer), and was elected unanimously after a strong speech which emphasised his commitment to the political side of the DSC, including promoting “a new vision for social security” and working with NUS on their sustainability policies to ensure that disabled students are included in the fight for environmental justice. These sentiments were echoed by the three candidates for NEC rep, who also stressed the need to work with SUs and further education colleges to make sure that liberation is at the core of their work. Malak Mayet, whose speech highlighted the importance of intersectionality in disability activism, and the injustices faced by disabled people of colour, was elected with a substantial majority. Finally, the four places on the Steering Committee were awarded to Deej Malik-Johnson, Kashmire Hawker, Anna Welsh and Chloe Hann, who were all committed to ensuring that the Disabled Students’ Conference would continue in future despite NUS budget cuts, and that they would make it as accessible as possible for all students.
Elections were followed by the panel discussion ‘After Welfare Reform: What Does a Just Social Security System Look Like?’, led by Rick Burgess (Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People), Deej Malik-Johnson (NUS NEC Parents and Carers’ Rep) and Martha Foulds (DPAC Sheffield). Like Paula Peters’ speech on day one, the speakers’ opening statements emphasised the devastating impact of welfare reform on disabled people, and called for Universal Credit and benefits sanctions to be ended in favour of a system based on trusting people to understand and assess their own needs. All three spoke of the need to put pressure on the Labour party to adopt ‘stop and scrap’ as their policy on Universal Credit, and I asked them what they thought the role of student groups should be in making this happen. The responses covered a range of possible tactics, from contacting local Labour MPs and candidates on social media, to staging protests, to threatening MPs with deselection, but the consensus was that the focus needed to be on persuading local representatives to support the cause at the national party conference, the only place where ‘stop and scrap’ can be voted in as official policy. Other questions and answers further highlighted the importance of an intersectional approach in activism, amplifying the voices of a diverse range of people without talking over them, as well as the need to be creative when organising protests and direct action to ensure that people whose disabilities might prevent them from being physically present are not excluded.
The afternoon sessions involved splitting into smaller groups for identity-specific caucuses, where the relevant DSC reps presented on the work they’d been involved in over the past year and took questions. While the women*’s caucus was very brief, and ended shortly after the two reps had presented their reports, the LGBTQ+ caucus involved much more in-depth discussions of the intersections between disability and LGBTQ+ identities, including how to make Pride events more accessible, and tactics for persuading universities not to use accessible toilets as an alternative to providing more widely available gender neutral facilities. Using student newspapers and other media was highlighted as an effective way of bringing issues to the attention of students and staff, as was staging protests on university open days. Once the caucuses ended, we reconvened in the main conference room for a short final speech from the NEC reps, after which the conference was officially closed.
Overall, the conference was a brilliant experience – it was great to have the opportunity to meet other students working in disability activism at their universities and to learn from them, as well as to play a role in shaping the policy that the NUS Disabled Students' Campaign will follow over the coming years, and I’m very glad that DisCam and Oxford SU were represented at this event.
DisCam Campaigning and Advocacy Officer