Queen’s Students’ Union’s Student Officer Team Stands in Solidarity with Alliance For Choice

In the past week, it has come to light that between 2017 and 2018, just 12 women were able to access abortion care on the Northern Ireland NHS. Over 900 travelled to access abortion and an unknown number took safe but illegal abortion pills during the same period.

These Department of Health figures are a clear sign that the latest guidelines continue to prevent medical professionals from providing necessary care for their patients. The extremely narrow framework for legal abortions in Northern Ireland emphasises the threat of prosecution for both medical professionals and people who procure their own abortions.

Since late 2017, pregnant people from Northern Ireland have had the option of accessing free abortions under NHS care in England, Scotland and Wales. However, legal uncertainties surrounding referrals of patients from Northern Ireland to clinics in Great Britain means that doctors are unwilling to risk potentially breaking the law by referring their patients for abortion services and are therefore unable to fulfil their duty of care.

During Women and Equalities Committee hearings in Belfast last week, a participant described the horrifying story of a 12-year-old victim of sexual assault who had to travel to England under police escort to access abortion care. The 12-year-old child had samples from the procedure seized as evidence to be used in criminal proceedings against the perpetrator. Further to this, the Department of Health figures also revealed that 22 non-residents under the age of 16 accessed abortion care on the NHS in England and Wales between 2017 and 2018.

The Queen’s Students’ Union Student Officer Team condemn the denial of healthcare that these shocking figures reveal. The Team firmly supports the call made by local pro-choice campaign group Alliance for Choice for the Department of Health to issue guidance to GPs in NI on the availability of care in England and follow-up care pathways.

The Students’ Union has a strong pro-choice mandate: the Union actively supports and campaigns for the complete decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland through the student-led campaign group Project Choice.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve access to free, safe, legal and local abortion. The current and very limited legal circumstances that allow for pregnant people to access abortion here are failing us. Even those who do meet the criteria of our highly restrictive law are being denied reproductive healthcare and are being forced to stay pregnant against their will or resort to travelling or breaking the law to access an abortion.

This is very much a student issue as well and at Queen’s Students’ Union we strongly believe in every person’s right to bodily autonomy and choice and we will continue fighting for reproductive justice for all.

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Take Action, Run for Something, Put Yourself Forward.

Why You Should Put Yourself Forward in the Student Leader Elections…

by Gift Sotonye-Frank
Part-Time Women Students’ Officer

Are you a Queen’s student?
If you answered yes to this question, then you should indeed put yourself forward for the Student Leader Elections!

I still remember the 28th of February 2018 at about 8pm, how I went from just being a PhD student to becoming the Women Students’ Part Time Officer.

I must confess that I wanted to win having put myself forward for that election. However, I was nervous and very uncomfortable waiting for the results. Nervous because it didn’t seem to me at the time that I stood a chance of winning.

I considered myself in the minority in lots of ways. These included the fact that it seemed as though there were not many research/PhD students like myself who had put themselves forward and, also given my international student status, I imagined how I would ever speak to as many people to vote for me.

Nevertheless, the next question might provide some clarity as to how it all began.

Why Did I Put Myself Forward for Election?
I constantly enjoy being challenged by new opportunities. For example, competing and winning the 3 Minutes Thesis Competition at the QUB School of Law, which then led to my participation in the same competition at the QUB graduate school level and also beyond.

Yet, I never imagined that running for an elective officer position would be one of the opportunities I would be exposed to!

It was in January 2018 during an ‘Inspiring Leaders’ workshop organised by Volunteer SU. Upon arrival at the workshop venue, it appeared as though there were more undergraduates who had signed up for the workshop and instantly I felt I was in the wrong place but I soon had a mind shift as I reminded myself that the workshop was open to all QUB students to which I was one. So I just made myself comfortable even though my inner self talk was constantly trying to make me uncomfortable. On the brighter side, the food provided on the day was good, as breakfast lunch and dinner were served to all participants!

During the course of the workshop, the former QUBSU president, Stephen McCrystall stood up to speak to participants about the then forthcoming student officer elections and he encouraged us to put ourselves forward. He told us his own story of becoming the President of the Union. He concluded by stating that our participation in that workshop was an indication of our leadership potential and that we should all go ahead to nominate ourselves for any of the positions.

In that moment, I became even more uncomfortable, thinking to myself that I should not have been in this workshop in the first instance and now a call to run for an officer position. I said to myself, this is for ‘them’ not ‘me’. However, the words he spoke never left me. It was like the call to leadership was pulling at me from within.

Furthermore, I wanted to make my day spent during that workshop count for something. I wanted to put to use the learning gained that day into meaningful purposes. Thus, when the call for submission of nominations was made, guess what? Yes you guessed right – I nominated myself for the role of Part-Time Women Students’ Officer.

Why Should You Put Yourself Forward?
Leadership is not just about holding a position or a title, rather it is more about taking action and being the example.

Sadly though for women, their leadership has been confined to actions related to gender stereotypes of nurturing and care in the domestic or home life.

Research shows that gender stereotypes hold women back from active participation in the public sphere. As Alice Eagly puts it, “women are often thought of as ‘communal’ individuals who are nice, friendly, and caring. Whereas leadership in the public sphere is hardly ever an issue for men.” It is therefore imperative that QUB women students should come forward and seek leadership positions as part of efforts to combat such stereotypical views.

Generally speaking however, fear limits a lot of us from taking up new opportunities. Yet everyone who has been successful at anything, both men and women, started with some measure of fear. So you will not be an exception. In the words of Theresa Golden, “Fear … puts us in a box, locks the door, and throws away the key. It makes us hide behind the things we do best and never venture out into the unknown. … It keeps us from sharing our true selves, scars and all.”

My suggestion is therefore that you ‘do it afraid’. However, it doesn’t stop there. The truth is, you are never alone. You will receive ample guidance and support throughout the nomination and election process. If you do become successful, and are voted into your nominated officer position, you will also receive training. Staff are also on hand to answer your queries if you have any.

More importantly you will experience the joy of being able to take action on the things that really matter to you particularly through the voting procedures. You will have the opportunity to hone your public speaking skills. You will make new friends and acquaintances. You also really become part of those who actually engineer and promote students’ voice and students’ welfare in the University and beyond. This for me is very rewarding not to mention the value such an experience adds to your CV and in the world of work.

Some Helpful Tips for Putting Yourself Forward

  1. Choose a role that interests you. It may be one that has some connection to your area of study.
  2. Ask yourself who is going to do it better than you? Or, what could you do differently?
  3. Remember it may be unfamiliar terrain, so get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  4. Ask for help.
  5. Do it afraid.

Conclusion
Every progress happens because people are willing to do something to make that progress happen.

Therefore, my question to you is what contribution can you make to the progress of students’ voice at QUB?

It is time for you to Take Action, Run for Something, Put Yourself forward.

Find out all about the Student Leader Elections and put yourself forward for one of the 6 Full-Time Student Officer or 12 Part-Time Student Officer roles by Wednesday 13 February!

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The UCU Strike: Why it matters to International Students

The University and Colleges Union (UCU) at Queen’s, of which a sizable number of staff members of our university belong to, have balloted by a majority of 88% for industrial action following the incredibly damaging proposed cuts to the existing pension scheme of our university staff members, including junior and senior professors across all faculties and schools. UCU members at Queen’s have been instructed to strike on 22, 23, 26-28 February and 5-8 and 12-15 March.

Independent research has shown that the proposed pension cuts may reduce the typical lecturer’s retirement income by £10,000 a year.  The more junior the staff, the worse the loss. The nationwide UCU management have estimated that some staff members of each university would lose up to £200,000 over the course of their retirement.

It is understandable that many of us are annoyed and frustrated that a number of our classes have been disrupted, especially given the fact that all of us are paying significantly hefty tuition fees compared to domestic students. Depending on the programme of study international students pay between £15,100 and £35,900 per year in tuition fees. As a result of the strike international students will lose up to 8% of teaching time.

However, this is exactly why you should support the UCU strike and stand together with your lecturers.

The staff members of our university are essentially employees of our university. In this context, the employer and employees have mutual responsibilities towards each other – An employer should expect their employees to carry out their jobs to the best of their abilities, and in turn employees should be able to expect an adequate amount of benefits in order to do so, which would include a secure pension scheme. This proposed cut in their pensions are a great disservice to your lecturers and staff members, who might potentially fall into financial insecurity after their retirement alongside their families. And it is the university management who is in the position to persuade the Universities UK (the body responsible for these pension cuts) to reverse such measures.

Your action in support of this strike would be vital to our lecturers. Together, let us show them that we too care for their welfare, not merely to show the university that we international students are unhappy about not getting our money’s worth in paying extremely expensive tuition fees, but also to express solidarity with our aggrieved lecturers that we value them as academics who shape our education experience at Queen’s. With a large enough presence and publicity, the grievances of the international students as a result of this strike will be made aware to the university management, and this would hopefully prompt them to address our frustrations. I would like to urge you to participate in the rallies in the coming weeks, and email your lecturers offering your support as much as you possibly can!

At the meantime, we too recognise that there have been ongoing conversations about creating a petition for financial compensation for the lost contact hours, specifically for international students as well as for every student at Queen’s. I shall assure all of you of one thing: that a few colleagues and I are already seriously considering to start a petition on such a proposal on Change.org should the University management not change their stance towards the proposed cuts to the pension schemes of our staff members and consequently prolonging the strike, as well as using this subsequent petition to urge the university management to do something about this entire mess. It would be manifestly unfair for us international students to suffer from the strike should the University not replace the lost contact hours with any form of replacement whatsoever, as each of us are set to throw thousands of pounds down the drain without getting the education we all paid for.

This will be an interesting three weeks ahead; and I look forward to continuously represent your interests in my capacity as the International Students’ Officer.

Best regards,
Jason Kang,
Part-Time International Students’ Officer.

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Why Society Sucks for Disabled Workers

700x300CN: Sensitive content, discussion about death, benefits, welfare reform and ableism.

Attempting to study or work while having a disability or disabilities can be tough. Don’t get me wrong; your natural reaction shouldn’t be to feel pity or upset at the difficulties and challenges faced by myself. Instead: feel anger. Society isn’t designed to accommodate disabled people, and this is particularly true for the fields of work or study. Society just isn’t accessible for competing in the workplace.

Universities have the potential to be one of the best institutions to help reduce those barriers in both work and study. They have the potential to shape and build a more accessible society, and ensure that a social model is adopted. They are, after all, an institution which is supposed to shape society. But the key word here is ‘potential’ – because this just isn’t currently happening in reality. The movement towards an inclusive society is a slow one in most areas, and even completely halted in others. There are certainly some people and some teams who are advocating for these changes and doing tremendous work to help move it forward, but unless it’s a collective fight, it will take much longer than necessary to achieve what we’re setting out to do.

I became disabled back when I was about fourteen years old. My condition was idiopathic, so something which doesn’t have a known cause. For me, studying became considerably more difficult. My teachers were all great in supporting me and offering to put arrangements in place to make sure I did not suffer academically. But I knew then that the cause of those barricades was something deeper and much more embedded.

Fast forward to University, I was studying for a Law Degree and still battling the same effects of my conditions, including chronic pain and chronic fatigue. Even though I was on a low contact-hours degree, I still had to sit in a lecture hall for two hours at a time, read complex textbooks while in agony, write essays when I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and still be expected to take part in the extra-curricular activities of the student experience, because I had to do these in order to be employable. Do you see the unfairness here? The academic world and the capitalist market combine, implicitly or explicitly, to make sure that disabled people are not granted entry to the higher echelons of success. It’s easy to look to the ‘success’ stories of people who have ‘overcome adversity’ and ‘inspired others in spite of their disabilities’. However, just remember why this is fundamentally problematic; it is designed to divert your anger to a place of sympathy, and to reassure your conscience that inaccessible systems and processes are morally permissible.

Fast forward to the current setting where I’ve been working for just over fifteen months. I’m fortunate enough to work in a place that is very accommodating and very understanding of what my disability means and what I need in order to make sure I can meet the demands of the job. But being a Sabbatical Officer isn’t plain sailing – far from it. Student Officers are virtually expected to be in all places, at all times, and still reply to that email in a matter of minutes. It is 24/7 and there is no down time. Every student who walks through your door commands the entirety of your attention and you must put a smile on your face for every campaign. The rewards of the job are more than I could ever articulate, but I shouldn’t have to apologise or justify why the demands of the job mean that something has to give. The life of a Sabbatical Officer is something which also needs to change nationally.

I am also repeatedly told that I have never had a ‘real job’. While I may fundamentally disagree with that analysis, let’s continue on the basis that I haven’t worked anywhere beyond the Students’ Union. When I move to a different job, I worry that nothing is going to change – the constant exhaustion, the lack of energy, the excruciating pain, and the permeating emotional and physical fatigue. Sure there’s the legal requirement for employers to make reasonable adjustments, but sometimes it is minimum standards which can actually do more harm than good. When I studied Employment Law at University, I came across a very interesting academic field of research whereby academics were analysing whether proactive or reactive reasonable adjustments were better. My initial viewpoint was to suggest that reactive was the better option; surely it made sense to implement reasonable adjustments which were individualised and specific to the needs and requirements of that person. It is person-centered and empowers them with the agency to vocalise what supports they need. Then, like any academic essay, I looked a little bit further and researched the opposite side of the argument. When proactive reasonable adjustments are put in place, it makes the workplace and society better for everyone.

Minimum standards can therefore be cloaked in an air of complacency, that the box has been ticked, and everyone is on a level playing field.

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It made me think about this graphic, one which is very powerful at articulating the often varied struggles and barriers people face in order to fully participate in society. But even this cartoon is flawed; it suggests that with ‘Equity’ everything is fine, but ignores the fact that there are systemic injustices and inherent prejudices. In reality, the fence shouldn’t prevent anyone from seeing the game without assistances.

The attitude towards disabled people in work, particularly in this modern age, is sickening. There is an automatic distrust of people who say they are disabled and can either not work, or work with reduced hours. There is a paranoia that disabled people are ‘cheating the system’, using their ‘supposed’ conditions to their advantage, and put their feet up just to enjoy their time off. This never accounts for the fact that the number of people who are genuinely abusing welfare claims is tiny. No one ever mentions the fact that the number of tax evaders is hundreds and hundreds of times larger. No one ever mentions the fact that this distrust is ideologically driven. When those in power impose austerity, impose cuts to welfare via ‘reforms’, and cause people to die via degrading and humiliating ‘fit to work’ assessments, that is because a conscious decision has been taken to attack the most vulnerable in society. Often, it is those who have little power, influence, or a voice to challenge the status quo.

The Disable the Label Campaign is not just an awareness week; it’s not just a week of events and discussions; it’s a call for action and a rallying cry to mobilise and to support disabled people in their fight against struggle. But this isn’t individual struggle. Always remember that struggle is imposed by an oppressor, and always remember that oppressors can be defeated.

By Stephen McCrystall
President, Queen’s Students’ Union

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Being a Disabled Student is Hard, Being an International Disabled Student is Excruciating

700x300It has been close to 5 years since I woke up in the morning without wincing in pain, but whether I like it or not, my chronic pain shapes my life and who I am. I suffer from endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which basically means I suffer from intense abdominal pain almost everyday. And if its that time of the month… well let’s just say agony is not even the word; more often than not I’d end up in A&E. To top that off, this year I have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder with a full diagnosis pending, but it has slowly affected my mobility and leaves me in quite a bit of pain as well. Hence, the past 2 years, have been a journey of acceptance and discovery, and learning to be comfortable with the word ‘disabled’.

I am an international student. This means I grew up in a very different culture with very different stigmas. To this day, I am unable to be completely open about my disabilities, even with my family members, due to the stigma surrounding invisible illnesses. Living in Belfast, far away from home, with this fear of telling someone I was in pain made me finally open up to the fact it was indeed a chronic illness and realise that it was ok to stop and take a back seat to listen to my body and its needs. You see, I was raised in a culture of ‘no excuses’; this meant I found it hard to ask for help when I needed it, but also meant that being in excruciating pain seemed like an ‘excuse’ to me. And so I would ignore my pain and press on, hurting myself more, both physically and mentally. It meant that in my head, I had no room to “label” myself ‘disabled’, because I could not accept that I was indeed disabled with an invisible illness. This cognitive dissonance of course did not help my already fragile mental health.

At this point I think it would be important for me to explain that along with my own internal struggle with accepting my chronic illness, and accepting that it was a disability, I had to fight for my illness to even be acknowledged by my doctors. The number of times I had been to my GP begging for pain relief to be told ‘it’s just period cramps’ –  even when I was not even on my period. My GP refused to believe my condition, even though I had a diagnosis from my doctors at home. They told me it was because of my weight and that the simple solution was to lose weight or go on birth control. Which by the way, trust me, I tried! I went on birth control and it only worsened the symptoms I experienced. I begged my GP for a referral, or even a scan, anything that would put me one step closer to receiving care for my condition. But I was consistently refused and eventually, I gave up. I relied on appointments with my doctors back at home over the summer and carried back medication to last the 10 months I’d be here in Belfast. However that would and could never work. With a chronic illness I need monitoring of my condition to see what worked and what didn’t, and without consistent follow-up, none of my medications would ever prove to be useful.

It took me 3 years of constant pain and struggling in university before I finally fought my battles with my GP and got a letter. I finally was able to ask for help. I was struggling with my degree and had reached a point I was completely unable to handle the stress, which then worsened my pain and severely limited my mobility.

It was only then that I learnt of the limitations that I faced as an international student, in applying for the help I needed as a disabled student.
 I hold a Tier 4-Student Visa, which denies me access to public funds. Hence I was not eligible to apply for either a Disability Living Allowance (now known as PIP) or a Disabled Students Allowance. A non Tier 4 international student, also can’t apply for the DLA/PIP/DSA as they are required to have a minimum of 3 years of residency in the UK.

I was also told that the University has discretion to only make the bare minimum “reasonable adjustments” (such as access to a green room venue for my exams, extra time for assignments, etc.), and unless I was able to fund the other support services I needed, such as having a note-taker for example, I would not be able to receive that support. I also learnt later that, the University often turns down support requests from international students, citing them as “not financially viable” or refers them to the Hardship Fund. The Hardship Fund is a very small pot of money in itself; any applications, if approved, usually amount to small hand-outs of around £200 – not at all a feasible source of payment for support services/equipment!

The very same International students who pay exorbitant sums of money ranging from £15,100- £35,900 (UG Fee rates for enrolment in the current academic year of 2017-18), being treated like cash cows by a university that denies them any access to support services, as they are “not financially viable” and gets away by providing the bare minimum “reasonable adjustments”. As an international student, I do not just feel angry and discriminated against, but appalled that a group of students can be side-lined in this way and that it can be completely ignored and structures accepted the way they stand.

The University, currently, and very recently, has created a support fund specifically for international students. This came about after much pushing for such a pot of money to be put in place for supporting the needs of a growing population of international students as QUB continues to expand and globalise. However, this has not been widely publicised to the international student community and so not many students are even aware that they may now be able to receive this fund. Yes, I said, may… it’s not very clear how big or small this pot of money is, if it is going to be sustained or if it is a one-off thing that will end when the money put aside runs out. In fact, I only learnt about this when I was asking Disability Services about the referral process for an international student, to fact-check what I was writing, to ensure it was not a gross misrepresentation, and not just a one-off experience.

So, as far as I am concerned – international students still have plenty of uncertainties about being disabled students in QUB. We come from various cultures and have so many different views on disability and being disabled. Many of us struggle with asking for help, even when we know it’s there, let alone asking for help that is not available or when we have no idea IF it even is available.

I love this university and I have had so many priceless experiences because I have come here to pursue my education, but it has been a hellish experience knowing an institution I pay so much to, and am so proud to be a part of, has essentially turned its back on me at a time I needed it the most, through its structures and lacking support services, engagement and communication.

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Headphones

700x300Imagine someone took everything you could hear and then made the volume double. Then imagine whatever device they used wasn’t of great quality and what you hear now has lots of noise and crackling.

That’s what it’s like for me. I can hear more than most people around me – but that doesn’t make me any better at making sense of what I am hearing. In fact, I’m positively worse at it.

I’ve walked – usually very briskly (I’m late a lot) – to class via down the Malone Road from Elms Village every weekday during the semester for nearly three years now. It’s the same journey every day, and if you see me, you’ll probably notice I’m doing one of two things.

I’m either listening to my headphones, or talking to a friend.

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These seem like pretty normal things, but for me, there’s a catch. I need to do these things.

I have Autism Spectrum Disorder and because of it, I have some prevalent quirks. I can tell you the birthdays of around 150 people from memory, I can tell you nearly anything you want to know about Elms Village and I taught myself to speak (fairly broken) Japanese.

However, my ASD also means I’m not great at filtering sensory information. This means I can very easily get overwhelmed by my environment and by the things my senses are telling me.

Different people with the condition will have different sensory issues. You’ll find some people who struggle with smells and others who have very low or high pain tolerance.

Personally, I struggle with noise. Ambient noise, loud noises, conflicting noises, high pitched noises, even silence; the list goes on.

So, when I am walking to class in the morning, I have to listen to music to block out the sound of cars as they pass by. For some reason, on the Malone Road, the sound of passing traffic is like a roar screaming in my ear and it’s unbearable. Talking to someone gives me something to concentrate on making it easier to filter the screeching out and listening to music through my headphones blocks out the sound to begin with.

The day the headphone jack in my phone stopped working; I quite literally had a mini breakdown. In fact, about 2 weeks later, I went on a day trip to Dublin. I was on my own in a place I didn’t know and my main coping mechanism was out of action. I began to freak out and got extremely agitated. I kept telling myself if I could make it to the restroom, I could calm down, get some privacy. Problems began to arise when I couldn’t even find any signage and even when I could, the toilets were pay to use. My head pounded, I couldn’t hear properly and everything started going black. Being in the middle of Dublin meant I didn’t know where I was and I wasn’t in a position to ask for help or explain to anyone what was wrong. So, I broke down in a corner on a staircase in St. Stephen’s Mall and started sobbing heavily. Not my most glamorous moment and not one I particularly want to relive anytime soon.

A woman – a complete stranger – came up to me, asked me if I was okay, and bought me a cup of tea. Honestly, I don’t know how long I would have been stuck there, but people like that woman help. People who ask what’s wrong, and don’t just point, stare, and mock make all the difference.

By Cat Rafferty
Disabled Students’ Officer, Queen’s Students’ Union

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Bloody hell in a hand basket: Pain, my brain and endometriosis… Living with an invisible disability is hard

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Living with an invisible disability is hard; dealing with one that flares up every month or so is pretty damn hard too. My pain rolls around and like half the population, I bleed, I’m cranky and occasionally, very occasionally, I might just shed a tear or two over an adorable video of a puppy. Unlike half the population, I struggle to stand up from my bed, I vomit and occasionally, very occasionally, I might just pass out. I have endometriosis, a condition whereby the release of the hormone that encourages the lining of the womb to shed doesn’t work quite as it should. Meaning that it tears, cramps and rips away from my uterine wall, mmm, delicious.

I’ve been known to take to some less than healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the pain, both physically and mentally, bed, inebriation, eating entire tubs of ice cream. Being in that much pain for that amount of time (it can be up to two weeks) can begin to turn even the sanest persons’ mental health upside down. Being far away from family at this time can be incredibly difficult because all I want is my mum and her chicken soup! And yet, on a day-to-day basis, it is invisible and not even regarded as a disability by the government, I am entitled to no benefits and there is no cure, outside of pain killers and a full hysterectomy, which they refuse to do on someone so young. There is no bonus to having endometriosis.

DISABLE THE LABEL 2Some doctors advise having children, some tell you having children is an impossibility, if they are able to diagnose you at all. It takes the average woman seven years to be diagnosed with endometriosis; it took my mother ten and the only reason they have diagnosed me is that they have looked at my medical history and symptoms and decided I must just follow a similar plan, I have had ultrasounds and blood tests which have all returned pretty much as normal.

But this is not a rant about the NHS, god bless them, this is about awareness, so that when I bleed all over a chair during a lecture, I still feel proud for just getting to class, when I’m struggling to walk. This is about awareness, for the women who feel like there is something not quite right about their period, speak to someone. This is about awareness and fairness and the hope that people might see past a brave smile to be just a little kinder to each other, you never know what kind of battle someone is facing.

By Lydia Mealing

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Welfare reform is ruining the lives of disabled people and we should be furious!

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Yesterday was the International Day of Disabled Persons, and rather than celebrating the lives of disabled people, the news in Northern Ireland was focused on the changes to disability benefits known as Welfare Reform. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland released a joint statement on the “real hardship” the changes to the benefits systems are imposing on disabled people.

The statement said the reforms were contributing to higher levels of poverty among the disabled and both groups called for more mitigation measures to prevent “further harm”. Whilst this statement is welcoming, and more people need to be aware of the abhorrent actions from the government towards disabled people, I feel it is necessary to add some level of personalisation to the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform.

A few years ago, the government brought in a reform programme that included replacing Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Since last summer, disabled people started having to complete 50+ page application to PIP through answering extremely personal and upsetting questions on the limitations they face daily due to their disabilities. The major change from DLA is that your PIP allowance is determined by how many points you score. Yes, really, your struggles with your disabilities are now scored by the government, something that feels completely dehumanising and totally trivialises the pain you face daily.

Following on from completing this utterly draining form, you are contacted by the private firm Capita, where they want to send a ‘Disability Expert’ out to your house to assess you and your disabilities. I must emphasise that the title ‘Disability Expert’ is not a protected title, and those who do the assessments often do not know anything about the disabilities you may have yet they get to decide “how disabled you are” and how many points you get. The mental stress and embarrassment of these assessments can leave many disabled people worse off for months, if not years.

In addition, Capita have been facing many calls to be stripped of PIP contracts due to their conduct, with a Channel 4 documentary showing cases of assessors completing reports without even meeting the disabled person in question and admitting to completely dismissing what they are told by PIP claimants. Furthermore, there were many unethical problems with this firm and their conduct, as assessments were being rushed through due to financial incentives given to assessors, where they received £80 for the first eight assessments completed in a week and £160 for each assessment after that. Surely adequate time and sensitivity should be given to each claimant, rather than rushing through cases that can lead to devastating, life-changing outcomes for the disabled person in question.

To make matters worse, the situation for disabled people in NI is particularly dire, as 36% of DLA claimants in Northern Ireland had their benefits taken off them compared to 27% in Great Britain. The government hasn’t suggested in any way whatsoever how they plan to mitigate the impact this will have on disabled people and their families, and levels of poverty in Northern Ireland continue to grow further.

I am particularly angry about this situation as I had to go through this process myself from August 2016 – March 2017. This was the worst time of my life and the stress that was induced as a result made all of my conditions worse. I suffer from an auto-immune disease called psoriatic arthritis and have had this since I was 11 years old. My immune system attacks my bones, muscles and tendons and thinks that they are a disease. This started off in my knees and over time, has spread to every joint in my body and I am in immense pain daily. In addition, I have hypermobile joint syndrome, which can be easily described as being double-jointed, but when you have psoriatic arthritis, this means that even more of my joints are vulnerable and I frequently suffer from dislocated shoulders, as my tendons have been eroded to the point that they aren’t strong enough to keep the joint in place when it extends too far.

I also have fibromyalgia, a condition that causes wide-spread muscular and bone pain, extreme fatigue, digestive problems and sensory issues with light and sound. As with many people, when you have physical disabilities, they can lead to mental health issues and I have suffered on and off with depression and anxiety for many years. My mental health was at the worst it has ever been when I was going to the process of applying to PIP, as I felt so uncertain about my future every day and how a stranger what didn’t understand my conditions got to control my future independence.

When I finally submitted my PIP forms and scheduled my assessment, it was set for the day after I was discharged from hospital following getting steroid injections into both my shoulder joints. After steroid injections, you are supposed to be on bed rest for three days. The anxiety in the lead up to my procedures on my shoulders and my assessment the following day was unbearable, as I’d heard so many terrible stories about assessors lying about claimants’ disabilities.

My assessor seemed very nice when she was at my house and didn’t expect me to go through the physical tests and I had slings on both my arms, yet she still determined that my disabilities didn’t impact my life enough as I opened a book (yes – seriously), drove a manual car, and was completing a masters, therefore she believed I didn’t require support. I was honestly dumbfounded at this reasoning and wasn’t awarded enough points to keep my motability car and support that enabled me to attend university in the first place.

I went into a state of shock when this happened. I was so angry at the benefits system and had to work out how I was going to get out of my house every day without my car. I decided to run to be Queen’s Students’ Union’s Equality & Diversity Student Officer to try to get as far away from this hideous benefits system and to help other students who are like me. I tried walking to work, but the tendons in my ankles and feet are so weak and damaged that I got tendinitis in both ankles and was in excruciating pain daily. I’m now in a position that I get a taxi to work every day, try to get on with my campaigns through the pain and exhaustion and make as many people aware as possible of the horrible treatment of disabled people by the government.

My situation isn’t as bad as many others, who have ended up homeless as a result of welfare reform, and I am lucky that I have a voice to tell others of these laws and to campaign against them. However, many other disabled people aren’t in a position like mine, and it is time that we all come together and scream from the rooftops until everyone is aware of what the government’s austerity agenda is doing to disabled people. Welfare reform is making the lives of disabled people much worse, but we can come together and try to Disable the Label for them, as our welfare system us failing them.

DISABLE THE LABEL
By Rachel Powell, Student Officer Equality & Diversity.

Posted in Equality & Diversity, Student Officers | Leave a comment

Experiencing Mental Health Issues? You’re not alone…

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In my first year at Queen’s, I remember sitting in a tutorial with a handful of other students and the conversation turned to exams and resits. The lecturer explained that a few people always end up having to retake the year, and that in some rare cases, students have repeated two years.

“Repeating two years? That’s mad”, one of the others joked. “If you’ve got to that stage, surely you would just take the hint that you’re not cut out for medicine.” The lecturer laughed and we all joined him. Because it did seem like madness, like flogging a dead horse.

If you’d told me then that a couple of years down the line, I’d be sitting shaking in front of that same lecturer about to repeat a third year, I wouldn’t have believed you. No-one plans to go down that route. No-one thinks it will be them. It’s been six years since that tutorial – the other five students present that day are all now working as doctors and I’m three years behind, still a student.

I used to be completely convinced that I could never talk about this sort of thing. Then about two years ago, I came across an article with this image of backpacks lined up on the front square of Trinity College, Dublin.

Blog Anon

131 backpacks – one for each young Irish life lost to suicide in an average year. It’s an image that’s equally thought-provoking and heart-breaking. 131 young people that felt they had no place in this world anymore. 131 families with an empty seat at the table, an empty room, a brother, sister, son or daughter who won’t come home again. It came with a message: ‘Every one of us can play our part in changing this. Send silence packing’. No matter how scary it was, I knew I had to play my part, and start talking.

I’ve had mental health problems, mainly OCD, since childhood, but like so many others, I did nothing about it until it had completely taken over my life. When I finally went to see my GP, I was 21 and just completely stuck. I’d been too nervous to sit my exams the previous year and was repeating a second year of university. Things were just escalating. I would sit up most of the night looking at textbooks, not taking a word of it in but just too guilty to sleep. OCD rituals were taking up an excessive amount of time and classmates were beginning to notice the anxiety attacks. In some ways, I was still functioning – I was volunteering a lot and still running a bit. But I just felt stuck. I didn’t really have proper friends, with moving between three different year groups. And I couldn’t really talk to my family. As much as we get on well, they didn’t understand why I was repeating and they were embarrassed to tell others what year I was in. So I kept things quiet, all the while getting worse and resorting to self-harming in secret to try and cope. I thought I was in complete control of it until I found myself in A&E one night when it went wrong – scared, alone and incredibly embarrassed to be a medical student. I felt like an imposter, like I didn’t deserve to be on the course.

Stigma is still very real within many professions. Whilst society is thankfully becoming much more open about mental health, there is still a lot of stigma attached to mental illness among people who are (or who will be) responsible for the welfare of others. And unfortunately, because of this, far too many doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers and students are silently carrying a needlessly heavy secret every day. In the worst cases, this has contributed to people ending their lives. People are afraid to seek help because they are worried about the effect it might have on their career. They are afraid that patients and colleagues might trust them less. They are afraid about what people might think, and what their diagnosis says about them. There is a very powerful notion that a mental illness is a permanent personal flaw rather than a treatable condition, and that’s something I’ve come across quite a lot.

After a particularly bad anxiety attack in class one day, I’d had enough and made a GP appointment to ask for some help. I was nervous and shaky but the doctor couldn’t have been more supportive or more understanding. That started off a long process of appointments and assessments and waiting lists. I was diagnosed with a mixture of anxiety, depression and OCD, which came as no surprise. And I’d be sugar-coating things if I said that it was plain-sailing from there. Unfortunately that’s not the way it works. I ended up having to defer my exams again that year, which meant repeating a third time.

I remember being sent to our pastoral advisor on one occasion – I tried to explain what was going on but he just didn’t seem to get why I thought I could still do medicine. In his eyes, someone like me couldn’t and shouldn’t be a doctor. I’m one of these people that cries weirdly infrequently, but I was getting so frustrated that I started to cry in front of him. He awkwardly started reading aloud from our study guide, as though that would help, and I left feeling more alone that ever. But at this stage, I spoke to the Students’ Union who were really understanding and explained my options. I also had the support of an amazing psychologist and GP who both fought my corner and persuaded me to give the course one go. Passing second year seemed like a hurdle that others sailed through but one that I would never reach. Thanks to their help, I got there in the end.

And I started talking. It was incredibly scary to begin with, but I started writing blogs about mental health and shared them on Facebook in the hope that it might help others. Growing up, I was never a talker, so being open about something so personal still feels strange. I don’t regret it though. It changed more than I ever could have hoped it would. People know now, and being three years behind at uni is no longer such an awkward subject with classmates. I’ve found friends that I didn’t know I had. People have taken the time to read the blogs, to leave comments, send messages, invite me to things – and the kindness and compassion that classmates have shown has made more of a difference than I can explain. I have housemates and friends that can talk about my weird behaviours and joke about it while we do other things – an everyday conversation, not the huge, scary subject it can seem like. People have felt able to open up to me, and ask for advice when they’ve been struggling.

When I saw that image of the backpacks, it hit home that so many of us are dealing with things like this but yet we all feel alone. The sheer number of other medical students who have since confided in me about their own mental health has been eye-opening. It’s really encouraging to see other students start to offload that heavy weight that so many of us carry around every day.

For anyone who might be in a similar boat, the best advice I can give is to persevere with your studies if you feel that it’s right for you. When things were going badly a couple of years ago, I applied to some other courses as a back-up plan. When the offer came through the door a few months later, I felt absolutely nothing. If anything, I was disappointed that I’d got in because it meant that changing courses was a viable option. That’s how I knew that I needed to stick at medicine. I don’t want to do anything else.

Hopefully your school will be supportive. Universities in general are becoming so much more used to handling situations like this, and chances are, you’ll encounter supportive and understanding staff, so don’t be afraid to be honest with them about what’s going on. Don’t leave it until it’s got to the point where you feel like completely giving up. And on the off chance that they’re not supportive, don’t give up. Other people can help. Speak to the Students’ Union and your GP. They can help you figure out how to move forward when you just feel stuck. If you’re asked to take time out or to repeat a year, it can feel like you’ve failed. You haven’t. It’s a big decision at the time, and you might encounter all sorts of negative reactions from friends or family, but stick with it. If it helps you reach your overall goal, it’s worth it.

Being open to your classmates about what’s being going on can be really scary, but people are often so much more understanding than we think they we will be. The reaction I’ve got has been overwhelmingly positive, and that’s helped me to persevere through the more negative reactions and keep talking about the things that we’re not ‘supposed’ to share with others. I’ve been slowly learning that it’s ok to have opinions, it’s ok to have a voice, and to use it, no matter what you study or what field you hope to work in. Talking about my mental health has led to so many conversations and friendships that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. We never know how much someone else might need to hear our openness. I’ve lost count of the amount of times people have told me “I thought I was the only one who felt like this”. Talking is not easy, but you’re never as alone as you think you are. Acknowledge the elephant in the room. It won’t go away until you do.

Anon.

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Women’s Aid’s Healthy Relationships Campaign and free Workshop

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University can be both a strange and exciting time. You throw yourself into a setting with numerous new faces and the possibility to form many new friendships and relationships. But what happens when those or any relationship takes a negative turn and you no longer feel happy, perhaps even unsafe?

Belfast Women’s Aid is running a 16-day campaign against domestic and sexual violence towards women and this year’s theme is ‘Healthy Relationships’. The organisation aims to highlight what makes a healthy relationship and how to recognise warning signs in an unhealthy one.

The campaign launches on 25 November (International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls) and runs until 10 December (Human Rights Day), to highlight the link between the two. Women’s rights are Human rights.

Queen’s Students’ Union is supporting this campaign by hosting a ‘Healthy Relationships’ workshop on 12 December which will give attendees the chance to learn about healthy relationships and how to recognise what makes one become toxic.  Everyone is welcome! There are only 20 spaces available, so register asap to secure your place.

If you want to further support the campaign come along to the rally on Friday 1 December outside City Hall and show solidarity with Women’s Aid. Also keep an eye on their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

If you would like to seek any help or advice regarding domestic or sexual violence here are some points of contact:

Phone: (24hr) 0808 802 1414
Text: Text SUPPORT to 07797805895
Email: 24hrsupport@dvhelpline.org

Sarah Sonner
QUBSU Part-Time Women’s Officer

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