“Mike, Last but not least it is now your turn”. I remember those words as if it was yesterday. A tingle still shivers down my spine.
The date: Summer 1992. The location: An airfield somewhere in the West Midlands. The occasion: A freebie day out organised by a brewery looking to get a naïve Students Union Executive (and its innocent President!) to sign them up on a contract for the following year. Lucrative. And so no turn was left unturned in creating joy and entertainment, or so they thought. And no Gifts and Hospitality register in sight.
Alongside the all-day free bar, everyone had the opportunity to experience a ride up in a glider, complete with loop the loop. As President it was right to stand aside and let all my colleagues go before me. It was equally right to pray all day that the light would close in before it was my turn. My prayers were not answered.
As they helped me into all of my kit, the organiser said I would be sitting in the front seat. I quickly retorted that everyone else had been sitting in the backseat. ‘With due respect Mike you are unable to pull the parachute chord so there is no point giving you one. And on that basis, you might as well enjoy the better views from the front’. Not a Health and Safety risk form in sight.
I was reminded about my own disabled student experience by recent coverage of students having to self-isolate at universities. We know during the pandemic disabled people have been disproportionately isolated, and I wonder (and worry) that disabled students are feeling the same.
I survived the glider incident – although my credibility stock with peers was never the same again – and went onto being one of the first Disability Officers at a UK university. This was very new with a primary focus on ensuring physical access around the Campus, including the Halls of Residence. From my own personal experience, I knew the greater challenge was not if I could get through doors, but could I be on an equal playing field in accessing the curriculum. After making some progress, I became part of a National Disability Team (for higher education) and went to Australia to import back their progressive approaches.
The world at this time was beginning to embrace online technology and universities were starting to move away from only the traditional lecture, seminar model. The most wonderful organisation, TechDis, was created which enabled the fusion of accessibility from the outset. It was also the first time I had experienced assistive technology and saw just how much of an enabler it was and would become.
At this current moment in our history online teaching and learning is the go-to method of delivery. We know accessibility of mainstream websites have been exposed as woeful. I hope there are voices in the higher education sector raising these issues and ensuring disabled students are having equal, albeit restrictive, access to their education.
For most students, higher education is about more than just academic progress. It is about growing up, gaining independence, making new friends, and enjoying the local pubs and clubs. For me at that time it was more about lock-in’s than lockdown. It was a rite of passage. I feel for all students whose rite of passage is going to be so different and potentially very isolating.
I have learned you can get through life without a parachute but to glide or gliding will never quite have the same meaning for me as the dictionary definition.
6 October 2020