Advocacy, Consultancy and Community: A Day With The DSA

Art by Jasmin Small

One sunny Wednesday during the teaching break, Co Disabilities Officer, Maddi McCarthy, sat down for a chat with Woroni in their Spoon Space, located in Copland. Maddi outlined the challenges and rewards of providing advocacy for disabled students and consultancy for the ANU. From the 26th of September through to the 30th the Disabilities Students Association will be running a series of events for Spoon Week. For more details and how to get involved with the DSA, see here.


Maddi, how long have you been involved with the Disabilities Student Association (DSA)?

 I got involved at the start of last year because I was a disability advocate at a res hall and as part of that I had to be involved with the Department.


What was the difference between working for the Department versus your res hall?

In my res hall people didn’t really know what disability meant. Working in a collective is very different because everyone who engages is very aware. My work in the hall setting was very much just trying to introduce what disability was, destigmatising it, and trying to make my hall more accessible because hall accessibility is a real problem. That work was really just case by case sort of helping run events and making them accessible whereas in the collective it’s institutional advocacy.


You mentioned that you’ve worked on a case-by-case basis and at an institutional level, do you think one of these offers more value to students than the other? Do you see your institutional work at the ANU actually paying off?

When the institutional level work does pay off it is very beneficial but institutional advocacy is a lot harder because it is really difficult to see that change. When it does happen it is very rewarding.

When it’s one-on-one you see the change faster and it is more gratifying in the moment. It’s a lot easier to work with someone individually versus trying to institute a systemic change. When you do actually succeed in changing something for the university it is more beneficial for more people. I guess they both have their own merits.


Has the ANU historically been uncooperative with the DSA?

Yes [laughs] for sure. We have done campaigns this year and while the people we talk to from the ANU seem to be very open, the actual changes don’t eventuate. It is very hard to make change happen at the ANU. Working with lecturers seems to be a bit easier and we see change happening there but when working with colleges or the ANU as a whole, they seem to be a little more reluctant and are sometimes quite difficult to work with. It is a bit frustrating when we keep trying to do stuff and they keep pushing back.


Why do you think they are reluctant to action your recommendations?

I think with a lot of the changes we are pushing for they are pushing back because it’s either more convenient for them or it’s a money thing. For example, the most recent thing we’ve been doing is trying to make ANU keep all classes hybrid for the near future, especially while COVID-19 is still a factor. I think for them they consider that that is either more effort or it is not benefitting them. They want to push everyone back onto campus because maybe that will mean they’ll get more money from res halls or stuff like that. For us we’re trying to push it from the perspective of ‘this is harming your students’ but when you’re working with a university whose main priority is money, profitability is a big thing. Not that they’ve ever actually admitted that to us, but I do think that’s a lot of what it is. Or they are just reluctant to make changes because it is not going to be easy for them.


With DSA Collective members, for a lot of them hybrid learning is a matter of their health and safety rather than convenience; what does it mean then to be an advocate for your Collective in that context?

For Collective members these policies literally damage us. For us to have to push for our own safety is really emotionally difficult. People who are immunocompromised or who have health conditions, for them to, for example, get COVID-19, it is not just a matter of “I will isolate for a week and I’ll be fine”. Our collective members can get really sick and have permanent health problems that result from it. To keep hearing ANU complain about effort and workload, knowing that people in our Collective that we work with are going to suffer for it, is really difficult. But it makes us quite passionate about the issues and it’s one of the things that makes us want to really do the work.


It feels like the stakes are really high in the DSA particularly.

Yes, for sure. When you have friends in the collective who tell you stories about how sick they’ve been in the past and how scared they are, yeah, it is really difficult.


It seems a large component of your job then is emotional burden.

For sure it is. Because even when it is not to do with the COVID-19 stuff – even just fighting for Education Access Plans (EAP) for example – all we’re doing is trying to access our education and we just need accommodations in place for us to be able to do that. When you’ve got all this pushback it is frustrating because we are just trying to access university. In whatever setting it’s happening in, and with whatever we’re fighting for at the time, it always just comes back to that.


Other than hybrid learning, what is the number one thing that the DSA wants right now?

One of the other things we are pushing for is EAPs. A lot of students have EAPs and we get a lot of individual advocacy come through to us where the lecturers refuse to acknowledge it or refuse to accept EAPs. We are really trying to push for EAP training and sensitivity training.

 One thing we’ve noticed a lot is people who are trying to ask for EAPs are often asked to justify themselves and they’re putting in a lot of emotional labour just to get an EAP accepted, which is not something we think should be happening. That has been an ongoing struggle for years: to get lecturers to understand EAPs and to not ask students to justify why they need it. We’re working with Access and Inclusion to achieve that.


Do you find Access and Inclusion to be an effective partner?

I think they’re valuable in getting EAPs and a lot of people do have good experiences getting EAPs. There are some issues that we’ve had with them in the past, but we tend to be able to work through it with them and they are definitely a valuable resource for us. They’re the reason we have EAPs in the first place.

If we do need official ANU back up because we’re fighting an EAP case it is good to have them as a partner because they’re ANU staff. Sometimes if lecturers aren’t responding to a student perspective it can be helpful to have ANU step in to back us up as well.


What do you think the DSA means to the institution of the ANU?

I would hope it’s a good resource for them to communicate with but sometimes it does feel like it’s just ticking a box.

The DSA, or at least myself and Mira (the other co-officer), are in a lot of working groups and we’re consulted by pro-VCs [deputy to the Vice-Chancellor] and stuff like that but sometimes it does just feel like “oh we’ve talked to the DSA and they’ve approved it, we’re good to go”. We hope we are a resource for the ANU to use to make sure the work they are doing is accessible. That is what we think we should be. But a lot of the time it does feel like they think “we’ve checked with the disabled people, they’re fine with it”.


What do you think it means to ANU students in a cultural sense?

For a lot of ANU students with a disability it is still quite stigmatised to stand up and say “I have a disability” so to have a space and to have a collective with other students who are experiencing very similar things is really comforting and safe. Especially for me it took me a long time to be comfortable with the fact that I am disabled and so to have people around me who have gone through the same thing is really nice. Then having people support you and advocate for you is really good as well. It is really good to be able to go to a collective and talk about things where people can relate to you. Having a safe space where you know you’re accepted and understood is really important.


Other than those reasons why should someone get involved with the DSA?

Other than the fact it is a community, I think it is good to be involved because it’s good to have people who can back you up. If you have any questions you can come to us because we are understanding about disability and how it functions in a tertiary education institution. You can come to us for information, for the social aspect, for advocacy and other resources.


Any closing remarks?

I’d like to reinforce that disability is a wide term. I think a lot of people don’t even know what it means or if they fall under the definition. It’s so broad – mental health, anaphylaxis, food allergies and physical disability all qualify. We’re really inclusive and we’re trying to spread what that definition is and break down the stigma of what a disabled person looks like.

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