Disability Awareness Fortnight: Student Spotlight #2

I think Disability Awareness and Disability Rights are such a complicated topic because there is such a wide range of disabilities.


How has your disability affected your day-to-day life? Is there anything people would be surprised to hear? 

I cannot see at all. I walk with a white cane, and use non-visual techniques, such as using sound and touch, to live my life. I use a screen-reader software (a software that reads out, in speech form, all text that I input on a digital system such as a computer or phone and all text that I have to read) to do all my studies, work and to interact in the online world.

The first of two things that I think people would be surprised to hear is the level to which digital inaccessibility, in my home country of India – often seen as a hub for technology and one of the most significant exporters of tech services, impacts my daily life there. This is because the United Kingdom has had stronger and better-enforced disability rights laws for a long time—much longer than India at least. While these have their weaknesses, they are largely effective. For example, the UK is the only country in which I have a mobile phone SIM card in my own name and a bank account which I can use independently. I don’t have a SIM in my own name in India because many of the larger phone providers require an iris scan as a form of multifactor authentication, and as my eyes are “atypical” for the programming of those systems, it is impossible for them to verify my identity, because they don’t have alternatives. Many banks have what are called “visual captchas” (a combination of letters and numbers/special characters) which show as pop-ups on a screen which are also used as MFA for their systems. Visual captchas are something that no screen reader can interact with, meaning that a system which has them is impossible to use for a blind person. 

The second thing that I believe people would be surprised to learn is how much of our digital communication customs are inaccessible to visually impaired people and exclude us from participation in conversations. For example, the number of times I have had to privately message somebody on my course’s WhatsApp group who has texted an image but forgotten to caption it with a description or the number of times I have to remind individuals or entities (even administrative ones within this university) to provide textual descriptions of images or screenshots of any material they share, is astonishing, and should give pause for deep, sustained and perhaps at points rather unsettling reflection. Especially to anyone who thinks that achieving the goal of being “the most inclusive university of its kind, anywhere”, set out in QMUL’s Strategy 2030, will be easy to achieve if we continue doing things exactly how we are now.

How do you feel about some of the myths that surround those who are visually impaired or have other disabilities?   

I feel what Rahul Bajaj, the first blind person from India to be selected for the Rhodes Scholarship, calls “ignorance fatigue”. While previous campaigns and initiatives have brought us a long way from mentalities about visual impairment or blindness in the 18th century, some of the questions we are asked, which assume that the myths are true, are frustrating, at times deeply hurtful and often very shallow. To be asked, in 2023, how one can independently shave one’s beard or do one’s laundry shows, in my view, that we still have much to do. I also think that nondisabled society and a number of disabled people as well, for that matter, are guilty of lowering the standards of behaviour we have a right to expect from the nondisabled because so many people are unaware about disability. That is why I am really delighted with the wording of this question, as it uses the word “myth”. We’d never excuse myths to influence the way large swaths of people think about other communities, so why are disabled people expected to stand this exclusion?  

As far as educating the nondisabled goes, I feel it is not our exclusive responsibility, just as disabled people, to educate them. I am not an ambassador for blind people, just as the first Greek classmate I had on my course (also one of the first Greeks I’d ever met) isn’t, and shouldn’t be expected to be, an ambassador for Greeks in QMUL. This is why I would increase my expectations of the nondisabled community and request them to please apply the same standards of behaviour when you ask someone who’s disabled something about their disability or perhaps praise them for something you think may be hard for them to do because of their disability. Do this by thinking, “Would I be okay with this question/praise if it were directed at me?” before praising me for being able to use a phone or asking me to explain my medical condition in spectacular technicolour.

How can we as a community better support/recognise people with disabilities?

I think that two extreme schools of thought have dominated the discourse: “see the person, rather than the disability”, and “make sure you see and fully acknowledge the disability as part of a person’s identity”. The first school of thought has the tendency to stigmatise disability further, in my view. It also allows those with genuinely bad intentions to pay lip service to its philosophies, while manipulating those philosophies to their own ends. For some people with genuinely good intentions but who overdo interpretation of this school of thought, a possible mistake that could be made is them underestimating the importance or the level of impact of a disability on somebody or on their life. The second school of thought is so ambiguous as to cause much confusion, creating lots of problems. This can lead to a small minority of people assuming they have a license to discriminate. Likewise, a slightly larger minority of (mostly) nondisabled people can start to make every conversation, every interaction, “about that disability”, i.e., overemphasizing the importance of the disability. 

This is why I would propose a third, middle path between these two schools of thought, where (a) the presumption is that, in the majority of cases or circumstances, the disabled will be treated in the same way as their nondisabled counterparts; (b) the disability is seen for what it is, given intelligent, thoughtful, rational consideration, and its importance to decision-making/impact on someone’s life are neither underestimated nor overestimated; (c ) the conversations about the points mentioned in (b) above have significant input from disabled people, rather than having nondisabled peoples’ input being the only one (as so often is still the case); and (d) there is flexibility to treat differently (but never less favourably) where the circumstances require. This, if adopted widely, would, I believe, create a much more inclusive societal mentality.

What are some things you are looking forward to after you graduate? 

  1. Pursuing a master’s and a PhD within the next couple of years, perhaps at Queen Mary! 
  2. Learning at a more advanced level how to think in a more sophisticated manner about the law and legal problems, and how to solve them. 
  3. Continue to learn from my communities how to become a kinder, more well-rounded, more thoughtful person. 
  4. Settling down, in the long-term, in London, my favourite city in the world! 

I do plan on practicing law as a barrister at some point, but not before pursuing a good deal of further study at the master’s and PhD levels, perhaps here at QMUL, perhaps somewhere else. I also hope, during my PhD years at least, to gain some experience of teaching undergraduate students, because I want to have the skills and knowledge to keep both the option of a career in academia and the option of a career at the bar of England and Wales open.



What does DAF mean to you? What does it mean to celebrate disabilities?   

I think Disability Awareness and Disability Rights are such a complicated topic because there is such a wide range of disabilities. As someone who is a disability activist myself, there is still so much I need to learn about people with different disabilities than mine and how to be a better ally to them. I am also very happy Queen Mary celebrates DAF because disability is too often associated with older people, and many may not realise that there are disabled students all around them. I also think there has been sometimes misguided ways of celebrating disabilities and disabled people, such as calling it "different abilities" or portraying "inspirational" disabled people who "managed to overcome" their disability and succeed in the world. On the other hand, as a neurodivergent person, sometimes my disability is portrayed as a "superpower rather than a disability". And while I think it's important to highlight the strength and value that disabilities and disabled people have, I don't think portraying us as having super strength or other incredible abilities is helpful in the end. We are not inspirational for overcoming the barriers that society puts in our way, I mean what other solution do we have? Just lie down and die? We are not inspiration porn for non-disabled people, because then this is used against disabled people who may not be as stereotypically successful as "see this person with the same disability managed to succeed in spite of it, why can't you?". The issue is that those barriers exist to begin with, the issue is that we have to fight day in and day out to get things as basic as appropriate healthcare and justify our right to live "in spite of high costs". Because my life is more valuable than any disability benefits I may be given, no matter how successful or inspirational non-disabled people may find me. Because life is intrinsically valuable.

How can we as a community better support/recognise people with disabilities?  

I think one big thing that disabled people tend to be denied is autonomy. I appreciate that people may want to help, but I am an adult able to consent. So please don't "help" without asking me if it's okay first. I know that most people who are reading this probably have good intentions, and want to be good allies and want to be helpful. Just ask first. Cause otherwise you are quite likely to end up doing more damage than help.  

Specifically with regards to neurodivergence, I also think lots of people think they are protecting "actually autistic" people like me by gatekeeping it from people who are self-diagnosed. When in reality it takes years, sometimes decades to be able to get a diagnosis. It can be expensive, there are long waiting lists, there are many biases still in the medical community which means autistic people are still expected to be white boys, over any other demographic, which makes it harder for those demographics to get a diagnosis. And some people may not want to get a diagnosis because of the potential from discrimination that arises from it: in 2021, in the UK, hundreds of autistic people were put on DNACPR (Do Not Attempt Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation), without their knowledge or consent, to "save resources" for people who had a "better quality of life" during the height of the Covid Pandemic. Inevitably, autistic people who are not diagnosed would not have been affected by this. And that is just one of many ways ableism still very much exists in the world. Most EU countries still allow forced sterilisation of disabled people without their knowledge or consent. Australia and New Zealand frequently deny work visas to disabled people over the costs of their healthcare being too high which would therefore make them a "financial burden" for the host country. So please, if someone can benefit from accommodations, no matter whether they have an official diagnosis or not, then just provide it to them. 

What are some things you are involved in at QM? What are your favourite extracurriculars etc... 

I am mainly involved as the LGBT+ rep (Mile End campus) for the SU this year. I would love to do more extracurricular stuff, but I am studying at 50%, working at 80% for a bank in Canary Wharf, I'm on the Student Union, I'm also on the LGBT+ committee for my work Union... I have no time. But I absolutely love my MSc in Astrophysics that I am pursuing. It's not easy going back to university after having worked for years, but I don't regret it one bit. 



What does DAF mean to you? What does it mean to celebrate disabilities?   

DAF is important because it gives us an opportunity to destigmatise being disabled through educational events. By hosting activities that show just how easy it is to create accessibility, we encourage more people to start considering what they can do to make sure that everyone at Queen Mary feels included. It’s also a chance to showcase disabilities in a more positive light, as far too often people only view it negatively.  

How has your disability affected your day-to-day life? Is there anything people may be surprised to hear?   

My disabilities affect my day-to-day life in many ways - something as basic as remembering to eat is a challenge for me and my poor working memory makes it very difficult to remember names/faces, meaning I can’t remember who I do/don’t know. This often leaves me feeling isolated, limiting my ability to maintain friendships.  

How can we as a community better support/recognise people with disabilities?   

I don’t feel that there’s any one way to recognise disabilities, but education is key in promoting understanding, which leads to destigmatisation and motivation to offer more support for disabled people.  

What are some things you are involved in at QM?  

I am the newsletter officer for the Neurodivergent Society and I participate in the QMentoring scheme. My interests relate to art, music, advocacy and travel - I’ve joined 8 societies, so it’s fair to say that I have a lot of activities to keep me busy at QM, but my favourites are the SWD and neurodivergent society as they never fail to make accommodations when needed and are extremely inclusive of everyone which has created a sense of belonging that has been tricky to find elsewhere 

Tell us a bit about our hobbies and interests.  

When I was 11, I found a hamster outside, burnt and severely abused. He needed lots of medical care and was terrified of people, but I chose to keep him and started learning about hamster care. When he passed away, I built 4 cages and started rescuing 4 hamsters at a time while making Instagram posts about their needs, because many people viewed them as commodities and not living beings that deserved proper care. I formed connections who started to help me take in more animals and quickly get them adopted out, and I started getting asked to take in other animals, with rats being my favourite. I currently have 5 mice but I only the most severe cases such as disabled or aggressive rodents as I’m able to match animals to a list of people that are waiting to adopt very quickly, so normally transport them straight to their forever home.


How could universities improve our support and services for students with disabilities (e.g. accessibility)?

Universities best tool to increase support for disabled students is to ask us what we need, or what we’d benefit from. Get feedback on systems that are in place to assess how effective they really are and encourage staff to switch to more inclusive teaching styles.  

Tell us something you are proud of.

I faced many educational barriers, from culture, sexism to ableism, and for years didn’t have access to any form of schooling. I was far behind my peers developmentally and academically, so nobody believed that I’d be able to pursue academia. I fought very hard for my right to learn. Once I got it, I utilised every resource I could find in order to make the most of my limited opportunities. Accessing education was the most challenging barrier that I’ve experienced, which is why I am proud of myself for getting into university.


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