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Disabled And LGBT

July 4, 2022

Heading to university is often seen as a time to become your own person. According to new figures from UCAS, more students than ever are identifying as disabled and LGBT, so what are the challenges and intricacies of belonging to both communities?

Lucy King couldn’t wait to start her Speech and Language Therapy degree at Essex University last September.

The first-year student has spina bifida and is paralysed below the knees and uses a wheelchair full-time. She also jokes about being a “female disabled lesbian who’s also a feminist and Christian” and was worried about finding her community.

Lucy isn’t alone. UCAS – the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service – revealed to the BBC Access All podcast that last year’s disabled cohort were twice as likely to identify as LGBT compared to non-disabled applicants.

It found 15% of disabled applicants share an LGBT identity, compared to 8% of non-disabled.

The complexities of this go a lot further than just a paper exercise, it raises considerations about accessible venues, reasonable adjustments and inclusion.

Lucy says moving to university was “very difficult”. As well as all the usual administration and loan application she also had to arrange a care package for help with tasks including showering.

But she says the hardest part was finding her disabled community.

“You need people to complain to, like when the lift is broken down. I found it very helpful to be able to have people who relate to me.”

With no Disabled Society, Lucy joined the LGBT society where she also found many disabled people – and says the UCAS figures ring true. But, she says, it would be so much better if ticking the “disabled” box on her UCAS form led to social connections as well as reasonable adjustments.

This is something UCAS is hoping to address following its latest research, which revealed a record 83,220 disabled people applied last year – up from 77,000 in 2021

CEO Clare Marchant says UCAS is “investing” in information to enable potential students to be able to talk to current students which she says will help people, like Lucy, find their communities more quickly.

When Lucy did settle in she says societies and groups were all very accepting, but she faced discrimination in other ways.

‘Kick in the teeth’

At an LGBT Christmas party she “did everything I could” to inform the host and nightclub that she used a wheelchair.

“But I turned up and you had to go up these very steep stairs. In the end, my dad carried me up the stairs,” Lucy says.

The event was held in a private room and “for no reason” there was a single step into it, meaning Lucy couldn’t get to the bar although “I didn’t let it stop me” having a good time.

With London Pride taking place on Saturday and July being Disability Pride Month, Dr Ju Gosling, a disabled lesbian who is co-chair of Regard the LGBTQI+disabled peoples’ organisation, says such incidents are a “real kick in the teeth”.

She’s knows of another event for LGBT people of colour where organisers thought they had “ticked the intersectionality box”. But it was at an upstairs venue with no accessible toilet and “completely inaccessible to disabled LGBT people of colour”.

She says incidents like this highlight how important it is to consider “people” rather than the minorities they might represent.

“It’s not about having more than one identity, it’s about having one unified identity and if people don’t see all of those things about me, they don’t know who I am.”

Dr Gosling says UCAS’s figures reflect what she has seen in her own research although she believes the stats could be higher as many disabled people choose not to declare their sexuality in case it impacts on their care or support network.

She says one of the reasons the number is higher than the general population is because discrimination can lead to disability or mental health problems due to the isolation and violence. She experienced a brain injury 20 years ago in a discriminatory attack.

She also thinks long covid will change the picture again, which means adequate support and information is needed to ensure people don’t face double discrimination – disability and sexual.

Connor Scott-Gardner, a blind trans man studying at the University of Leeds, says he has experienced double discrimination at university.

While his faculty has been “amazing”, when he wanted to change his name he hit an administrative stumbling block.

The university would only issue an inaccessible PDF form which he was unable to fill in because “I can’t write or read”. It took several stressful months before this was resolved.

He says “toilets are another big one”. If someone is unsure if Connor meant to enter the men’s bathroom, instead of thinking it was his choice, they think “oh no, a blind person has gone in the wrong bathroom,” and guide him out.

“You have to laugh,” he says, but it’s a serious and personal matter.

Connor says recognising that people can belong to more than one group “goes a long way” and “means we plan better for everyone”.

Lucy, who has been appointed Disabled Student Officer, agrees. “Disability just needs to part of that conversation,” she says. “Ensuring that events are held at accessible places.”

Clare at UCAS says it is hoping to improve its own planning by connecting with disabled students long before they apply to ensure their needs are met and offer reassurances.

She says some students start to think about university from the age of 10 and 56% of last year’s disabled applicants specifically researched support before applying showing how “super important” it is.

UCAS has called on the government to extend its Adjustment Passports to schools.

Currently being trialled at the University of Wolverhampton and Manchester Metropolitan University the passports are a way to collate student information which can then be passed onto future employees without further assessments.

“We know if a transition is a good transition than they’re more likely to continue in their studies and be successful,” Clare says, while the government adds it is “considering its next steps”.

Although some people may not want to disclose their disability to UCAS, Clare says it opens up lots of support options.

“It’s not just about access arrangements once you get to university. Think about open days and interviews and auditions – universities can help with that.”

Dr Ju agrees planning is important, but says it’s also about thinking more deeply about the people around you, especially if they require some level of care.

“I’ve come across situations where everybody thinks so-and-so is unsociable, but they’re not. They just have to be back in their room at 20:00 because they’re put into bed by 21:00 and they might not want to disclose that.”

She says for visually impaired students it might be a case of knocking on their door to “offer an elbow” to guide them to a function.

“Don’t just assume, ask people what they need to take part.”

You can listen to the podcast and find information and support on the Access All page

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