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Expert comment: In response to the DSA cuts: An academic’s cri de Coeur

Associate Professor Dr David Bolt discusses what the future holds following cuts to the Disabled Students’ Allowance.

For decades, the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) has provided non means-tested financial support to students who have what tend to be designated impairments, long-term health conditions, mental health problems, and learning difficulties such as dyslexia or dyspraxia. From the outset, I must stress that this state of affairs worked very well for me in the late nineties, when I did my first degree as a disabled student at the University of Staffordshire, and has been comparably helpful to the numerous disabled students whom I as Associate Professor of Disability and Education have taught in more recent years at Liverpool Hope University. Nevertheless, since David Willetts announced the so-called modernisation of DSA it has been apparent that for the forthcoming 2016 intake of students, things will be very different. In brief, the British Government is making significant cuts to the DSA that universities will be required to redress.      

Although there’s much to criticise about the Government’s actions against disabled people, here I focus on something far closer to home – namely, the attitudes of those of us who are lucky enough to work in academia. Given the requisite changes, there’s a growing danger that disabled students will now be casually keyed to a metanarrative of disability that’s dominated by issues of cost and effort. What are the financial implications for universities? What will universities need to do to make reasonable adjustments? These questions must be addressed of course, but please let’s not forget that this is only one dimension of disability’s place in academia.

Conceptions of Disability

Several models have been introduced or identified to critique and change the ways in which disabled people are misrepresented in society, culture, and history. Over the years, the critical locus of these models has moved from religion to charity to medicine and beyond. Most significantly, the social model has enabled us to draw a conceptual line between impairment and disability. In these terms, impairment resides in the mind and/or body but disability is a product of social barriers, such as those the DSA was originally introduced to surmount.

In the past few years, following work on affirmation, gain, and biopolitics, I’ve been developing what I call the tripartite model of disability. This model obviously will never be anywhere near as important as the social model, but I think it’s of some use when it comes to avoiding one-dimensional conceptions of disability. Instead, normative positivisms, non-normative negativisms, and non-normative positivisms are all identified as aspects of the disability experience. In other words, this model recognises the affirmation of socially accepted standards, alongside both problematised and affirmed deviations from those standards.

It’s my proposition that we now apply this model in academia to avoid getting caught up in one-dimensional conceptions of disability. In relation to the DSA cuts, then, we may well recognise many normative positivisms: that the British government’s primary concern is non-disabled people, and indeed that this charge is sometimes made about universities. We may also become increasingly aware of those less subtle non-normative negativisms: how universities will now have to meet new costs and make more effort to be inclusive or else run the risk of excluding disabled students. The key point at this moment in time, however, is that we mustn’t forget the non-normative positivisms: that disabled students are often some of the strongest, that there is bound to be more learning in a classroom directly informed by diverse experiential knowledge, and that universal learning designs are intrinsically useful to many students, disabled and non-disabled alike.

Putting aside the rights and wrongs of universities being drawn into the British Government’s regime of disability cuts, it’s paramount that we in academia don’t allow ourselves to regress to the dated conceptualisation of disabled people as always recipients and never providers. As we chair or attend meetings about how the DSA cuts can be redressed, we should keep in mind the knowledge and experience that disabled students have brought into our classes. We must remember, too, that many of our academic mentors are themselves disabled. In my own discipline of disability studies, for example, the way has been led by eminent disabled academics such as Colin Barnes, Peter Beresford, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, Sally French, Georgina Kleege, Petra Kuppers, Stephen Kuusisto, Carol Thomas, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Rod Michalko, David T. Mitchell, Mike Oliver, Tom Shakespeare, and so on. Indeed, academia has long since been shaped by disabled people like Aristotle, Ann Bancroft, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Jorge Luis Borges, Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Dickens, Albert Einstein, Antonio Gramsci, Stephen Hawking, William James, James Joyce, Michelangelo, John Milton, John Nash, Isaac Newton, Alfred Nobel, Sylvia Plath, Joseph Pulitzer, Pythagoras, Socrates, Vincent van Gogh, and many, many, more. My cri de Coeur here, then, is that in responding to the British Government’s DSA cuts we don’t obscure the importance of disabled people in academia – not to mention society more broadly.

Published on 20/03/2018