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Disability History Month

Oxford University
Dec 19, 2016 · 13 min read

UK Disability History Month (UKDHM) is an annual event creating a platform to focus on the history of disabilities in our community and the struggle for equality and human rights.

Here are some different perspectives on how people with disabilities have always been a part of Oxford and how we aim to support them.

What is it like studying at Oxford with a disability?

Rediscovering stories
Caroline Moughton

Disabled people have always studied and worked at the University of Oxford. However since much disability is hidden, and people may have chosen not to share information about their disability, the stories of people living with disability or long-term health conditions may have been lost. To recognise Disability History Month 2016, I’d like to share some of the stories we’ve uncovered through work for our Diversifying Portraiture project.

See some of the Diversifying Portraiture project here

The earliest story comes from Julian Reid, Archivist at Corpus Christi and Merton Colleges. He told us about John Rainolds, President of Corpus Christi 1599–1607, who suffered from a crippling disease towards the end of his life which prevented him from walking, standing or even sitting. John Rainolds was one of the scholars who worked on the translation of the King James Bible, and a witness records that when the translators met, he had to be carried into the room by his servants and laid on the floor, from which position he worked.

Another early example of a college Fellow living with what we would now term a disability or long-health condition is Jonas Radcliffe, a respected Fellow of University College for thirty years. Robin Darwall-Smith, Archivist at Magdalen and University Colleges noted the memorial inscription in University College chapel to Radcliffe, who appears to have had great trouble walking: on one occasion he was even excused from going to the nearby St Mary the Virgin Church to attend an academic exercise. The inscription specifically alludes to his ‘infirmatas pedum’ [infirmity of the feet] while praising him for his abilities and virtues.

We’ve also found stories about people living with what we would now recognise as mental health conditions. Zachary Bogan, a Fellow of Corpus Christi 1647–59, is recorded in his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography as suffering from years of ill-health, including depression. His first publication was “written ‘to divert my humor of Melancholy’ but impeded by illness and want of time. In 1652 he recalls being ‘in a manner buried alive in melancholy’, for months unable to read and for years to remember what he had read.” He wrote about being ‘whole years altogether in Sadnesse.’

One of the most important volunteer contributors to James Murray’s mammoth Oxford English Dictionary was William Minor, who was an inmate in Broadmoor Asylum. Minor had worked as an army surgeon during the American Civil War where his experiences led to paranoid delusions and an unstable mind.

The Archivist at Trinity College, Clare Hopkins, told me about Robinson Ellis, a Professor of Latin who lived at Trinity College between 1858 and his death in 1913, apart from a partial absence between 1870 and 1876. He suffered from lifelong mental ill-health, including reported bouts of severe depression, attacks of paranoia and voices in his head. He was a brilliant scholar who regularly embarrassed his colleagues by his inappropriate conversation. Quite early in his career he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head. He recovered, but with damage to one eye. The Trinity fellows gave him a room above the Senior Common Room, so that they could look out for him better. His portrait hangs in the room he occupied for so long.

By kind permission of the President and Fellows of Trinity College, Oxford

A consistent message in all the stories is that disabled people have been valued for their academic work at Oxford. More recently, Professor Sir William Hume-Rothery, who founded our Materials Department, was completely deaf and had a very poor sense of balance after being infected with cerebrospinal meningitis as an army cadet.

William Hume-Rothery

Professor Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin developed rheumatoid arthritis during her early twenties but successfully carried out her scientific work developing the new field of X-ray protein crystallography despite constant pain and increasing deformity in her hands and feet. She solved the molecular structures of penicillin, vitamin B12 and — later — insulin, helping to provide medical treatments for millions of people with debilitating illnesses. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964, the only British woman so far to receive the award for science.

© Estate of Cecile Crombeke . By kind permission of the Principal and Fellows of Somerville College, Oxford.

Disability support at Oxford aims to be multifaceted. We recognise that any group of people is likely to include some living with disabilities and long-term health conditions. At the University of Oxford we are proud of the achievements of our students and staff who are balancing study or work with managing a disability. We offer a range of support systems: For students that includes designated disability leads and coordinators in every college, the Disability Advisory Service and the Counselling Service, and a range of peer support. For staff advice is available from the Staff Disability Advisor, the Occupational Health Service and Human Resources staff.

Caroline Moughton is the Staff Disability Advisor at the University of Oxford. She supports current members of staff with disabilities and long-term health conditions to enable them to work successfully at Oxford.

Walking the Line: Surviving the Workplace with the Contradictions of Mental Ill Health
Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway: by kind permission of Oxford Playhouse.

The thing about mental ill health is that it takes human nature and positively riddles its already fragile structure with contradictions. That makes it hard enough for our family and friends who see us at the moments when the mask is most down and we are most, well, “us”. But at work it must make us a veritable conundrum.

Take my 2016. This has been an extraordinary year for everyone, and for me that was as true on a personal as much as a public level. In January I competed in the final of the UK National Poetry Slam Championships at the Royal Albert Hall, performing in front of a packed house. In August, I became Creative Thinking World Champion, apparently being the first person in Mind Sports history to win both this title and that of World Intelligence Champion. And next week is the Humanities Division’s administrators’ Christmas lunch.

Many of you with experience of mental illness (and, let’s face it, anyone with a minimal sense of rhetorical structure) will know which of those events terrifies me most. In fact, I won’t be going to the Christmas lunch. I could, just about, get through it. But the effort would cost me any fruitful work the rest of the week.

It’s not that I don’t like the people. They are wonderful people, and I love talking to them. And it’s not that I don’t like lunch — you only have to know that I run 100 kilometre ultramarathons and still weigh north of 16 stone to get that. It is just that the combination of sensory overload, anxiety, utter inability to know where to begin with small talk or social convention, and a lack of the formal structure that would either restrain or channel whatever extremes of mood my brain chemistry chooses to throw at me that day is utterly exhausting. I don’t mean “we all get tired this time of year” exhausting, as the, er, tiresome cliché goes. I mean “imagine you haven’t slept for 72 hours, have had no caffeine, and are being berated for not being able to function at 120%. And then imagine that every minute of every day” tired. Mixed with guilt and anxiety.

But also mixed with fear. Because without a supportive workplace, that scenario will probably cost you your job. There are so many things my colleagues and managers can do at work so that they see more of Creative Thinking World Champion me and less of hiding in the corner me.

· Conduct as much business as possible by email rather than telephone
· Have a work environment that values what you do not how you socialize
· Accept that my door is open whenever it can be but some days I need to sit at my desk with the lights low and catch up on spreadsheets
· Acknowledge that the quality of my work does not correlate to the sharpness of the creases in my clothes (rather acknowledge that it does, but inversely, and make a choice which matters more)
· Support me doing work with the central university on disability

No one gets everything right, but they get a huge amount right. And when they don’t, they get right the most important thing of all. They listen. And genuinely try to learn. Because everyone’s experience of mental ill health is different.

The above podcast hears Professor Linda Gask talking about her successful career as psychiatrist and academic, despite living with depression and anxiety. She speaks with candour about her experiences of periods of mental ill-health. Dan Holloway makes an appearance at the end of the video, with a poem that he performed, that you are able to view below.

Dan Holloway is Head of Administration at the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics. He sits on the University’s Disability Advisory Group and gave the closing remarks for this year’s University Disability Lecture in the form of a performance poem. He has worked with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Mind, and Rethink producing national policy guidelines on debt and mental health for the past 10 years. He is a novelist, poet, and performer whose thriller The Company of Fellows was voted Best Novel Set in Oxford by Blackwells readers.

Student perspective: Niamh Walshe

Studying English and Italian as a dyspraxic student sometimes strikes me as a somewhat flawed plan. Thankfully, it’s not, and, in those moments, I’m clearly wrong, but every now and then I seriously question whether I should be even trying to complete such a literature heavy degree when I often find reading quite challenging. Maybe university just isn’t for me? Maybe this university isn’t for me?

Given the infamously lengthy nature of Oxford reading lists and the University’s demanding workload, the challenge often seems particularly problematic given where I’ve chosen to be, and I find myself wondering if perhaps I should have gone elsewhere.

I cannot see, however, how a different institution could possibly be more caring and supportive than I have found Oxford to be. My tutors and lecturers have found creative ways to spread the workload more evenly, generously spent time helping me improve planning and writing essays, and frequently ensured I receive handouts, reading lists, and essay feedback in the manner best suited to my learning style.

Their kindness and approachability, as well as that of the DAS, my college, and my peers, has made it infinitely easier to speak up when there’s a problem, and helped me to realise that just because I sometimes need more help, doesn’t make me less capable. Though sometimes there are still difficulties and the pace of terms means it doesn’t take much for everything to spiral out of control, I truly believe that the people around me have done everything they can to make things easier. In particular, having an SpLD tutor’s support has averted many a crisis and often helped me get back on track when everything’s starting to pile up.

It’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed by your work here, whether you have a disability or not, but having such support means I know, that with some help, everything will be okay. Not only this, but it has enabled me to find new ways to approach studying which, instead of trying to constantly minimise the impact of dyspraxia, work with it to allow me to produce my best work without feeling like I’m constantly fighting against myself.

For me, accessibility at Oxford has meant being able to ask for help when I need it without being judged or made to feel like a lesser student. Sadly, not all students have such positive experiences but, thanks to a huge collective effort, things are changing. I’m keenly aware of how fortunate I have been at my college and with the tutors I have, and my hope is that soon every student will have the same experience.

Though I sometimes daydream of the prospect of reading weeks and just one essay a term at different universities, I’m confident that the close-knit College community, numerous contact hours, and amazing DAS support here have not only made university learning much more accessible and helped me to work to the best of my ability, but have also made me feel much more confident in who I am and how I learn.

Niamh Walshe studies English and Beginners’ Italian at Somerville College.

Student perspective: Catrin Haberfield

Studying at Oxford was always going to be tough. When you’re surrounded by fellow students, tutors, and lecturers who are all the best of the best, you have to work hard to keep up — even if you’re perfectly healthy! However, having a disability sometimes feels like you’re permanently at a disadvantage: no matter how hard you try, you’re always one step behind everyone else.

Lots of people don’t realise how many side effects there can be when it comes to mental illnesses. I struggle with anxiety and an eating disorder, and this means that I also deal with chronic exhaustion, body dysmorphia, and paranoia, to name but a few. I love being involved with student theatre, orchestra, and rowing, but trying to balance performing with anxiety, body image with exercise, can be near on impossible — let alone trying to fit it all around a degree! Sometimes I think that I bring it upon myself by doing too much, but I think rowing in particular keeps me sane when I’m confronted by multiple essay crises and I haven’t left college in days. Everyone has their different coping mechanisms!

I’ve been incredibly lucky with the support the university have offered me. I meet with a ‘mentor’ once a week to talk about how I’ve been, as a kind of informal counselling. I’ve received assistive technology such as voice recognition software, text-to-speech software, and a super cool pen that records lectures while I take notes. But the word “lucky” is important — I have been lucky. Not everyone gets this support, and it more or less fell into my lap. I registered a disability with my college when I arrived at Oxford, but that was only a tick box in the middle of a massive registration form. My college did the rest, offering me a meeting with the Disability Advisory Service who then offered an assessment and guided me through the Student Finance aspect. I didn’t go looking for any of this support, but I don’t know where I’d be without it.

I think my case is rare in that respect, but it’s hard to look for if you don’t know where to start. I’ve always been open about my mental health, so I often have friends and fellow students come to me for advice about anything from anxiety and stress management to relationships — you name it. I enjoy being able to help people. I’m a figurative fountain of knowledge when it comes to university resources, who to talk to in college, how to apply to the DAS, etc, but it always surprises me when no-one else has heard about any of it before. I think general awareness, even just a leaflet in a freshers’ pack, would go a long way.

It’s also worth noting that while I have no experience of living with a physical disability in Oxford, it’s pretty obvious to everyone how much there is that still needs to be done. This year a postgrad student who uses a wheelchair matriculated to my college, but the MCR isn’t wheelchair-accessible. It’s small things like that which people don’t think about until they’re confronted with a situation like this.

Overall, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the help I’ve been offered to continue my studies in Oxford. The whole process did take a good few months though, and i didn’t start seeing my mentor until late Hilary term, so I wish I’d applied for it before I arrived along with the rest of my student finance paperwork.

Catrin Haberfield studies English Language and Literature at Somerville College.

Find out more:

The Counselling Service has some podcasts of discussions on students including ‘The price of success’ and ‘The relentless drive for perfection’. Their website also includes lots of links to useful resources.

The It Get’s Brighter project was launched by Oxford students to send a message of hope to people experiencing mental ill-health. They invite people to post their own video messages, and have persuaded some very well-known figures to participate. The information about the team shows how some have personal experiences of mental ill-health, and some are studying clinical neuroscience.

What next?

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Want to read more? Try our articles on Imagining the future of healthcare, The future of work and How do you design the library of the future?.

Produced by Jessica Turner, Digital Communications Office, University of Oxford.

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Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact:

Oxford University

Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. We aim to lead the world in research and education. Contact: