Matthew Pierri, a founding member of the Oxford Accessibility Project, Rhodes Scholar, Lawyer, and Activist

Current Affairs In Conversation

Image Credit: Matthew Pierri

Matt Pierri, from Melbourne, Australia, where his family still resides, moved to Lincoln College, Oxford in September 2016, as a Rhodes Scholar to do two one-year masters. He did a Master’s in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School and then completed a MSc in Social Science of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute. Whilst in Australia, Matt completed his undergraduate degree in Journalism, followed by a graduate Law Degree. At age 16 in 2007 he sustained a spinal cord injury and since then he has been interested for personal reasons in disability issues. He has been active in advocating for the disabled community for the past four or five years. Matt is one of the founding members of the Oxford Accessibility Project which will be launching its guide to the colleges and social spaces in Oxford later this year. 

How did the Oxford Accessibility Project come about?

The project was started in 2016 by myself and four others. Of the five of us, four of us have mobility impairments. The general idea was borne out of personal experience, which was the difficulty of moving over to Oxford and trying to find a college that was accessible. There is no central resource that helps you compare and contrast between different colleges, and in particular there’s no resource that focusses on the social spaces. When I contacted the Disability Advisory Service, the response I got back was pretty unhelpful and basically said if you want find out about their accessibility you need to look online. I find this problematic given that the Disability Advisory Service would have information on where every student with a disability is living, which colleges, and therefore would know which colleges are more or less suited to accommodate their accessibility needs. And so, the project was basically created to fill the gap which we had all personally experienced and the idea was essentially to get students to crowdsource information about their colleges; then to publish that into an online guide and to have a central place where you could quite easily compare and contrast different colleges. Hopefully to make the research process much more efficient; instead of every person having to do independent research every year that largely overlapped, you could just have a single resource that also then people would contribute to.

How is the Project progressing and what’s next?

We set that project up in Hilary 2016/17 and we’ve been really happy with how it’s gone so far. It’s taken a little bit longer than we envisaged, but we also had no real idea of what we were doing. Over the two years we’ve had about 250+ volunteers help us out.We’ve mapped about 25ish colleges fairly comprehensively and we have partial data on a bunch of other colleges. This year our goal is basically to publish all that into a guide. And through the lessons of getting people to manually go around and photograph things and measure stuff by hand we realised that an app would help us make this a lot faster and would help us standardise the scale of the information gathering process. So, our next step is basically to try and build an app that will allow people to do this and, outside of Oxford colleges, look at social venues like cafés and restaurants and bars. It’s borne from the premise that we think people with disabilities are often socially excluded from places both physically, in the sense of if there is no ramp and you have a mobility impairment, or there is no hearing loop and you have a hearing impairment, but also, culturally. Often people with disabilities, in other people’s minds, have more pressing needs than, say, socialising. So that element of people with disabilities being just humans and wanting to have friends, do social things, and have fun – it’s not really associated with the stereotype of disability. We want to break that down and empower people to socialise with greater confidence and ease and that product is being called Sociability and that’s this year.

Have you found massive differences between the accessibility of colleges?

There is huge variation between colleges. One of the things we’ve focussed on, rather than making a judgement of accessible or inaccessible is laying out the features of the college. We think that is actually more useful for people who have a multitude of different abilities and preferences, and it means that we don’t assume what a disability is and what people might need. But it’s also a lot easier to ask people to crowdsource that information, because you don’t have to ask them to make a judgement about whether its accessible or not – you just have to tell us whether there is a step or how wide the door is. Those are much more objective facts. And so, across the range of colleges there are varying levels of barriers and obstacles to accessible spaces.

What’s your own college, Lincoln, like?

I think Lincoln has done a really good job of making their college space accessible and building it into the college. But also, that is prompted by the fact that they have had in the last few years several students with disabilities. It’s a really silly chicken and egg problem; students with disabilities are not going to come to a college that is not set up for them, because they don’t want to wait six months for them to be able to access the bathroom. Those colleges end up basically deterring students with disabilities and create a two-track system. Some colleges have virtually no motivation to change and also no actual change, and then other colleges get more motivation to change and then they attract more people who then prompt more change, and then you end up with some colleges being really good for disabilities and other colleges being basically exclusionary. I think that is a really pernicious, Oxford elitism that has practical consequences for people coming to the University. Its also against the public sector equality duties: the anticipatory duty of making a place accessible if somebody wants to come. So that something that I want to break down by shedding a light on this area which for the most part is hidden behind walls and people don’t get to see. 

What are some of the difficulties you think arise in Oxford particularly?

People use the heritage listings in Oxford as an excuse not to make any changes, which is definitely a consideration but its not a brick wall. You can adapt heritage buildings, that’s a clear fact, but most places that don’t want to make changes will use that as an excuse to say “We cannot.” And for the most part, if you stall long enough in Oxford the students who are perhaps advocating for change will cycle out. They will finish and they’ll move on and go somewhere else. So, I think in that sense it creates a really dangerous kind of conservatism and also hesitancy or reluctance to act which then entrenches the status quo.

How do you feel about the word disability?

I don’t think it’s a great word, I don’t have a particular affinity to it and I think language is important. I say ‘a person with a disability’ rather than ‘a disabled person’ because, for the most part, I think that’s a better reflection of this social model idea of disability. The world in its construction often disables people more than their physical bodies. I’m wary that, to some extent, to focus too much on labels can also be less productive and confusing. There is a balance there, I would be all up for changing the word disability but I think it, as an issue, has become so entrenched in society with that label, so it may become less helpful to call it something else.

Finally, how you change the social perception of people with disabilities?

I think it’s a two-way thing; people with disabilities also have a bit of responsibility to help break down those barriers, and that’s both talking about disability and trying to normalise it, but also being patient when people perhaps don’t have the best understanding of how to interact with someone who has a disability. But definitely I have a lot of weird interactions during the day. If I go to a bar, people will come and high-five me and say its great to see you out, and whilst these are all good natured and well-intentioned comments, in many respects they are actually quite patronising. But also, they reflect a really poor understanding of disability. If someone congratulates you for coming out to a bar, that’s because they expect that someone using a wheelchair should remain indoors, essentially indefinitely. I use a wheelchair but I don’t like to consider my wheelchair as my defining characteristic. I’m a lawyer or I’m a student or I’m a boyfriend or I’m a son and I happen to also use a wheelchair.