Spoonie Stories

Walking into Lectures Like… With My Walking Stick

Ellen Blunsdon hit the headlines back in January, when BBC Scotland wrote an article about her and her experiences of living with a disability as a young woman. We catch up with the 20-year old History and Politics student from Edinburgh, to find out what has happened since her video went viral and how she manages her studies and her chronic illness.

How did the BBC story come about: did you approach them, or did they reach out to you?

Very surprisingly, they came to me! I wrote an article for my student newspaper here in Edinburgh. I spoke about my experiences feeling hyper-visible due to my stick as a marker of my disability and yet invisible in a world built for the able-bodied. From there, I got a Twitter DM from someone at the BBC just before Christmas. This led to filming in Princes Street Gardens on a chilly day in mid-January. I feel very lucky
to have had the opportunity to share my story so publicly.

What was the key message you wanted to make in your video?

My aim is to always, no matter the medium, reduce the shame disabled people too often feel. As someone who ignored and resented their health for over 10 years before accepting myself and seeking help. I think it’s so important to empower people with disabilities. We can all get the support we need to live our best lives.

I also wanted to show able-bodied people a side to disability that isn’t normally represented in mainstream media. All the attention we seem to get is portrayed through the lens of tragedy or ‘inspiration porn’. I wanted to normalise chronic illness through telling my story with humour and honesty. This hopefully conveys that disability is a part of day-to-day life, rather than something extraordinary to be glorified or pitied.

representing disability in universities

What happened after the article was published?

The response was absolutely incredible and completely unexpected. The video got over a million views within the first week. It was also the most read article on the BBC Scotland website on its day of publication. I got so many comments and messages of support from people with my condition, or other disabilities. It was really touching to hear, especially from people who said they were now more comfortable using a walking stick in public. It was overwhelming but in such a positive way.

You talked about people reacting differently to you when you went out with a walking stick and when you didn’t. What do you think people’s perceptions about disability and invisible disabilities are and how can we change this?

Society still sees disability as a ‘problem to be fixed’; as something that signifies weakness or is worthy of pity. It’s something so socially ingrained. It’s going to take huge structural, governmental and institutional change to fix. However, it’s not impossible. I believe it’s definitely possible to begin to breakdown the barriers disabled people face. We can use education, spreading positive messages and increasing the representation of disabled people.

However, while individual awareness is incredible important, I don’t think this is enough. I’m currently working with my university’s curriculum and timetabling department to try and ingrain accessibility on an institutional level. Without challenging the practices of wider organisations and breaking down negative social structures, the disabled community will continue to face discrimination.

ellen blunsdon disability officer Edinburgh university

What’s uni life like?

I am incredibly fortunate to have a great support system of absolutely wonderful friends that make my university life so enjoyable. They are so kind, funny and exceptionally supportive when it comes to my disability. They don’t mind when I cancel on them during a flare up and they cook me dinner when I can’t manage. Most recently, they helped me to run a successful campaign to be elected as the University of Edinburgh’s Disabled Students’ Officer. I really couldn’t do it without them and I love them all dearly.

Within the wider university structures, I have managed to find tutors who understand my condition. However, it has not been easy. With disparities in lecture recordings, compulsory attendance policies and a generally inaccessible campus, it’s a daily struggle to complete my studies. I am lucky in the sense that this fuels me, rather than inhibiting me entirely. There are so many students at my university, and in universities across the country, who experience systematic and individual discrimination due to their disabilities. I find it both upsetting and infuriating in equal measures. I am lucky enough to have an advocacy platform and I want to use this to make real changes to the lives of disabled students.

What is it like being at uni and using a walking stick?

It’s hard, I’m not going to lie. People are curious when faced with the unexpected and it’s not exactly common for a 20 year old to have a mobility aid. However, my thought process is ‘if people are going to stare, which they probably will, you may as well give them something to look at.’ Through using my sticks as an extension of myself, I now feel super comfortable using them in public. I have about 8 now (I think), allowing me to represent myself through my mobility aid in the same way I do with clothing.

What advice would you give to other young women who might be worried about taking their walking stick out in public?

I’d say sorry first of all. I’m sorry that society makes you feel inferior due to being disabled, I’m sorry people stare, I’m sorry they make comments, and I’m sorry the world makes you feel as though you’re unable to prioritise your health due to the discriminatory views of other.

Annoyingly, it really is one of those things that gets easier with practice. Keep going, find sticks that you love and push through the challenges. Your health is the most important thing, and if you feel as though you need a mobility aid to keep you safe and stable and without pain, please use one. Stay strong, ignore ignorance as much as you can and surround yourself with positive communities both in person and online.

What’s the future look like for you? What are your plans after uni?

Oh boy. Honestly, I have no idea at present. I know what I love – social policy, disability activism, writing, speaking – but I’m not sure how to translate that into a ‘proper job’ yet. My dream is to do something in the government and make real social change. Or write a book. Maybe do a masters or a PhD. Or maybe just live on a farm with a bunch of chickens. Who knows really.

Follow Ellen on Instagram for more inspiring and witty stories.

izzy wheels wheelchair covers

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