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Unlearning Ableism

The UCL portico, between the columns hang banners in various colours that represent the LGBTQ+ community


Unlearning Ableism

by Cleopatra Glithero

I am not good at being late. This feels like a strange thing to say as a person who is about to enter her sixth year of a normally three-year undergraduate degree in the hopes of graduating for the first time aged 28. But here I am – late! I missed the deadline to submit this work you are currently reading as it has taken me a long time to learn how to use the assistive IT software through which I wrote. It took an even longer time to access accessibility software from UCL. Software designed to help me combat my suddenly acquired mobility issues resulting from an only recently identified neurological disorder, which took much longer to get diagnosed. Here we are! Meeting (once again) at the intersection of intersectional issues, held at traffic light systems designed to support people while preventing harm occurring, managed by managers and operated by operators who do not know how to use the tools to fix the systems which were not built to be sustainable, but are still used to punish us for not following the traffic codes they coded, for the traffic they exacerbate through poor codes of conduct.

The irony, the repetition, the terminology! Simultaneously esoteric yet so blatant. Deliciously worded words. When I was invited to contribute a submission on the theme of complaint, I was hoping to create something impressive yet mysteriously shrouded in metaphor. Something fun but worth analysing, with a clear message but not too blatantly communicated. Would I make a mixed media collage? A painting? A poem? I was excited to find out. Before the deadline, I was inspired by the suggestion that a song be composed to capture the repetition of themes that occur in complaints processes with terminology as lyrics. But, alas, my hands cannot play the guitar anymore and the software I have access to aid these hands of mine is not compatible with the computer composition software I usually use to produce music. In order to not delay any later than I am already uncomfortable with, I figured I would attempt to give an insight to my story which naturally contains more than one complaint related to my experiences of being a student at UCL. As a neurodivergent person, I am more than used to my British cultural experience of humans searching for non-existent subtext in the words I express, so maybe my non-fiction creative submission will still get analysed despite its directness.

Screenshot from UCL website that reads ‘At UCL we define Mature Applicants as those who are 21 years or older on the day they start their first undergraduate degree’.

I joined UCL in 2017 as a ‘mature’ student. Incurably curious and often trying to decipher whether my physiological responses were signs of excitement or anxiety as I navigated a campus expected to hold over 43,000 students. All the libraries to be explored, museums to visit, societies to join and languages to overhear at London’s global university where my BASc Arts and Sciences degree allowed me to take almost any module from any UCL department. No more need to dwell in possibility. Now that I had managed to pass all the application stages (A levels, UCAS form, personal statement, short answer questionnaire, open day afternoon examination on the content of morning lectures) to receive my unconditional offer, I had earned my place to be welcomed during welcome week just like all my peers.

In the second week of my first year of attending UCL, I received an email from someone responsible for managing and maintaining donor relations which told me that I had 24 days to write and send a thank you letter to the donor of the enormous bursary and scholarship money I was awarded. I wrote my letter proudly and passionately as I have done every single year I have been at UCL since. Thanking and reiterating the impact of the things I had included in my many scholarship application forms, such as how I, as an estranged student, who grew up on free school meals, with multiple disabilities, was able to use this scholarship money to move from the 24/7 staffed local authority care supported accommodation into private halls in London. This meant I could sleep comfortably in my first ever double bed for the next 365 days and focus all my concentration on doing my coursework at my own desk, without having to stress about juggling multiple part-time jobs around my studies. Therefore, I could learn and develop every skill necessary to combat the complex real world challenges that my degree was designed to pioneer interdisciplinary solutions to! 

Screenshot from UCL website that reads ‘Donor Relations. The Donor Relations Team seeks to develop, sustain and nurture lifelong relationships between UCL and all its donors - before, during and after their gift. We work closely with academic and clinical colleagues across the university to produce compelling and bespoke proposals and communications for donors and prospective donors, build dynamic donor visits and events and meaningfully that and steward every philanthropic gift UCL receives. Everything we do aims to build a sector leading donor experience that acknowledges, recognises and reports on the transformational impact of philanthropy at UCL. 

Soon after, I was invited to a meeting arranged by the UCL Widening Participation team with Professor Anthony Smith, who at the time was the Vice-Provost (Education & Student Affairs). We met in his office where the carpet was so thick and plush that it felt bouncy to walk on. He congratulated me on my unconditional offer to UCL, asked me how I was settling in and wanted to know my views on how to encourage hard to reach and underrepresented students such as myself to attend UCL. I told him many things ranging from why I think certain subjects like maths should have both a January assessment period as well as a summer one. I suggested that the disability team could make the application process more accessible. I said that I didn’t think I’d be able to afford to attend UCL as halls only catered to students during academic term times and that despite my maximum SFE loan eligibility, I couldn’t afford the private intercollegiate halls that offered accommodation 52 weeks a year, nor did I have a guarantor to help me rent privately. Smith listened and responded diplomatically, praised my views and told me he would ask his PA to invite me to meet him every year of my degree to hear my future views and celebrate my UCL journey from student to alumni.

I never received another invitation, but I did absorb many observations I made on the communication styles and linguistic phrasing patterns which emerged everywhere across UCL, especially in the Annual Scholarships and Bursaries Receptions which I first attended on 20 Febuary 2018. At this big annual event, recipients (student writers of thank you letters) are invited to take pictures holding pre-made banners that say things like ‘you changed my life’ before being taken to meet their donors and sit together through inspirational speeches made by Provosts, Deans, donors and alumni, before networking over champagne flutes and canapés. Like a few others, my donor chose to remain anonymous, so I got to float around mingling with the hundreds of other people in the room. I remember initially being confused by some recipients’ embarrassment and annoyance at having to attend and especially to hold banners. ‘But the donor has changed my life’, I would think to myself as I agreed to the donor relations team’s public request for testimonies which they could share with their outreach materials to prospective donors. It wasn’t until I received the overly grateful email response to my written testimony and spotted the quotes they had chosen to use in the outreach booklet for prospective donors that I noticed the absence of my descriptions of tangible methods required to support underrepresented students (like access to full calendar year accommodation, a list of community places to spend Christmas and other holiday periods etc) and clocked the nature of this charitable power dynamic.

After making some incredible friends across the university, doing multiple internships and taking a variety of modules throughout staff strike actions and covid closures, I learned and strengthened many skills to help me navigate my incredibly variable health and university life. I quickly identified the staff and students who were either equipped (or willing to learn how) to support me appropriately during my hospitalisations for bipolar disorder and I participated in things like PhD research projects to identify ways the student psychological and counselling services could improve. I refined my skills of adapting my phrasing to navigate conversations with senior leadership members, lecturers, supporting staff, students and precariously contracted security and cleaners so I could plant the seeds of transitioning us from unhelpful terminology. 

Marginalised communities are not hard to reach; we are underserved. We are not underrepresented; we are systematically excluded by barriers we did not create yet are expected to dismantle while smiling and unpaid. Ignite the fires of compassionate direct action and disrupt thinking from 1826 while I dance through interactions with a range of expert lecturers who talk for two hours to overcrowded lecture halls about how the best way to learn is through short participatory discussions in small groups assessed by any method other than a closed book essay questioned handwritten exam, whilst only using those methods that make it harder for anyone, let alone those with disabilities, to flourish. Expert lecturers who laugh with each other about how ‘schizophrenic’ their careers have been (spent researching more than one topic of interest). Expert lecturers who present research to my undergraduate class about long term impacts of poverty on health while using language to describe certain research participants which makes these people sound like fascinating specimens with a rare co-morbid concoction of ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) sprinkles to study rather than potential students within the classroom. And I will keep dancing through these interactions in my own time and space, regardless of whether it is in email chains and phone calls preventing debt collectors from incorrectly pursuing me over student finance related UCL admin errors, whether it is from my potential future wheelchair as I campaign to get through the doorframe of the UCL disability accessibility IT hub that UCL currently refuse to widen due to protecting a historical building, or of interacting with those who collect demographic information from me and question my next of kin and financial situation before advising I take medical leave from studying to go home to rest and relax while my parents look after me. 

Dancing and laughing, singing and thriving with my peers and chosen family of friends, as I challenge the stereotypes of my supposed difficulty. Navigating communication and humour, collaboratively rewriting the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) and recreating the resources and dynamics required for sustainable community care. Using some of my privileges like being white, academically capable of studying at UCL, speaking English as my first language with a malleable London accent, as a protective buffer as I drag my disabled body mind soul across the broken glass barriers on the roads, leaving signs at every traffic light saying things like ‘your life is worth protecting’, directions on how to navigate this, suggested scripts to use, here is how to hitch a ride, spot those with a safe driver’s licence and where to collect a comfy booster seat so you can enjoy the view along the way. All the while, gratefully humming the tune of those who fought so hard to pave the way before me.


Matilda Allen and Angela Donkin: ‘The impact of adverse experiences in the home on the health of children and young people, and inequalities in prevalence and effects’, report for the UCL Department of Health, 2015.

‘Own time and space’ reference:

CLEOPATRA GLITHERO is a half-child-half-ancient, proudly queer and disabled person who always has at least one song stuck in her head. When she is not writing her undergraduate dissertation on forced displacement, community artmaking and healthcare, she can also be found on Instagram @cleopatra.bronwyn mainly posting about loving friendship and trees