Artists and Activists: In Conversation with Danni Watts on Disability Activism

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Image Description: Graphic of students protesting with Danni Watts pictured. Reads ‘In conversation with Danni Watts’

I first knew Danni through her work with Tabou Disability Magazine, which she founded in 2020 to highlight the experiences of disabled individuals, especially those at university. 

Danni is currently a third year Law student at St Hugh’s college, who, as a result of her own disability, pursues her studies part time – an option she informs me that not many at Oxford are aware of. Studying part time has allowed Danni’s termly workload to be reduced, and for her degree to be extended by a year. This has been extremely helpful and has allowed her to work at a more reasonable pace. 

Danni was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), also commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, not long after starting university. An “awful” (to quote Danni herself) Michaelmas in 2017 resulted in the suspension of her studies, and her diagnosis with ME came nine months later. Although her condition has now become a lot more manageable, Danni’s story is neither a unique nor isolated experience, especially for those affected by disability and chronic illness. 

I asked Danni if she was comfortable with the idea of identifying as an ‘activist’ or an ‘advocate’ for the disabled community. 

“In some ways, yes, but I think I have fallen into the role of being an activist without realising it,” Danni answers. She continues, “initially, lots of the things that I pushed for, ie, the university being more accommodating for disabled students is something that came from what I needed myself. So it’s not something that I’ve necessarily chosen to do, but it’s something that I felt like I had to do.”  

“…if someone were to describe me as an advocate I would be flattered, but ultimately TABOU wants to empower all students to be able to advocate for themselves.”

“In terms of the word ‘advocate’, I identify with that a little bit, but I am wary that I only have my own perspective of disability, which is obviously limited, so one of the great things about TABOU is the opportunity I have had to learn from other disabled students. I like to think that the changes I push for have positively impacted other students. I also hope TABOU has provided a platform for other students to speak about issues which impact them. I think successful advocacy requires you to consult with the most marginalised of the people you are representing. Those people will have the lived experience necessary to make real inclusive change. So if someone were to describe me as an advocate I would be flattered, but ultimately TABOU wants to empower all students to be able to advocate for themselves.”

We talked about how having chronic illness, especially ‘invisible’ ones, which often get taken less seriously, makes life at Oxford a lot more daunting – so I took this as an opportunity to provocatively ask what  she thought of the university’s ability to support its disabled students. 

Danni smiled, visibly with amusement and a split-second of hesitation.

“Hmm… Let’s start with the positives,” she said with a laugh. 

“On an individual level, I’ve received a good amount of care from the university. I’ve had very understanding tutors, flexible deadlines, and the ability to do my studies part time. I also think that the student-led support is exceptional. The work that Tiri Hughes has done as the head of the SU Disabilities Campaign is absolutely incredible, and the way they lobby the university for change. Because of that, my experience with Oxford has been overall positive.” 

“But if I could summarise failure, it stems from the fact that my experience will not be guaranteed for all students. My positive experience mostly stems from the compassion of my tutors, instead of university policy.”

Danni emphasises that the conventional Oxford term and exam structure will necessarily have to change at some point, towards more inclusivity.

“I think the pandemic has shone a light on the issues disabled students have been facing for years. For example, if you get Covid-19 during your finals, it could potentially destroy all the work you have put into your degree. The fear of illness completely derailing your degree grade is not new to many disabled students. The Oxford method of assessment often means the majority of your degree grade is determined by exams completed with a two-three week time frame. Clearly this disadvantages those with chronic illnesses, for whom one flare-up could mean every single examination is negatively impacted.” she argues.

Danni emphasises that true inclusivity is about ensuring all students, regardless of background, are in an environment which gives them the opportunity to thrive.

Danni’s following statement struck me as even more necessary, because, “what Oxford really needs,” she emphasises, “is access beyond admission.” 

While the extremely competitive nature of the application process is fully made aware to prospective students, the act of surviving Oxford and graduating relatively unscathed, however, is an entirely different ball game altogether which affects even the best of us; and more so for students with disabilities. Danni emphasises that true inclusivity is about ensuring all students, regardless of background, are in an environment which gives them the opportunity to thrive.

Our conversation then somehow veered again into the territory of Covid-19, a topic that now happens to emerge regardless of context. The inevitable discussion of the ongoing pandemic now exists like a malicious, omnipresent figure, quietly looming within the corners of our subconscious. 

“I have seen articles about ‘long-Covid’ and how people describe it as similar to ME. Would you mind telling me more about that?” I asked. 

“The current research seems to suggest that ‘Long Covid’ is shorthand for a wide range of conditions, but there is at least one group of people with Long Covid who seem to be experiencing post-viral symptoms which are very similar to ME,” Danni responds.

“It concerns me, because the chronic underfunding of research into ME means that we are so far behind on where we could be in terms of discovering causes and treatments. It also worries me that people with Long Covid might face the same disbelief faced by people with ME, because there is no one diagnostic tool or a straightforward diagnostic process. There is no blood test, for example, specifically for ME, and it is the same in the case of Long Covid.” Danni herself, has in fact, written an article on this issue, which she has been happy to share with me. 

She continues to explain how the pandemic has significantly affected the disabled community. In addition to increased overall vulnerability, many also now face very limited access to healthcare practitioners and services, due to hospitals currently being overwhelmed. Furthermore, Covid-19 death rates comprise a large proportion of those with disabilities. People with learning disabilities, for example, may have a Covid-death rate of up to 6 times higher than the general population.

“While I do think that disabled people have been significantly negatively impacted by the pandemic, I really do hope that it eventually leads to a more accessible world.”

Danni points out the inherent ableism present within most institutions, and how she thinks, “many within the top tiers of the UK government and our public institutions have a complete disregard for disabled people’s lives.” She alludes to Lord Sumption’s remark to Deborah James, a Stage 4 cancer patient, whose life he explicitly deemed as “less valuable”, as an example. The lack of British Sign Language interpreters for Boris Johnson’s national Coronavirus briefings, Danni adds, also means that such important news often remains inaccessible.

“But do you think that anything positive has actually come out of this pandemic, especially in terms of more awareness?” I continued.

“I do think that there are positives to come out of this, in a sense that we have now been forced to adopt more flexible working lives, such as working at home,” she said.

Danni informs me that she has, in fact, been approached by many non-disabled friends, who tell her that the pandemic has made them “finally come to realise the many societal barriers which have always been put in place for disabled people.” 

With emphasis, she continues,I just hope we now remember that accessibility is actually possible, and that we continue this after the pandemic. While I do think that disabled people have been significantly negatively impacted by the pandemic, I really do hope that it eventually leads to a more accessible world.”

My video call with Danni draws to a close when I realise that it is almost 12pm and I have yet to have breakfast. We both laugh. Before hanging up, I ask if Danni has anything else to say, and she informs me that her platform, Tabou Disability Magazine, is always looking for more contributions: there is still so much insight from the disabled community that has yet to be heard. 

Danni’s voice and story is merely one out of many, and more of these important stories can be accessed through the groundbreaking work she has done with Tabou, among other things. 

Image Credit: Tian Chen via The Oxford Student Creative Team

 

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