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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Don’t call me vulnerable

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by Katherine Deane

SRHE staged a joint seminar with the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) on 21 July 2020, after NADSN published a Position Paper on “COVID-19 Post-Lockdown: Perspectives, Implications and Strategies for Disabled Staff” on 21 May 2020. The paper provides a list of 12 recommendations for higher education institutions to consider when planning for reopening campuses. Seminar participant Katherine Deane (East Anglia) gave her take in this, the first of two blogs.

Covid-19 came along and suddenly we had a whole new dictionary of terms to learn. Social distancing, social isolating, shielding. But some of the terms were already ‘known’ and came with their own baggage. Some people were told they were vulnerable and should shut themselves away – shield themselves from the virus. But as my 79 year old fiercely independent mother said: “I’m not vulnerable, I’ve never been vulnerable in my life.” And she was right – she was at high risk of poor medical outcomes if she were to catch the virus – but she wasn’t vulnerable – she was in a vulnerable situation.

Disabled people, people with underlying health conditions, older people, have the same rights to life as anyone else. We are not vulnerable. But this virus – and the governmental response to it – does place us at higher risk. But risks are something that can be reduced, mitigated, done something about. Risks are the responsibility of all of us to manage, whereas vulnerability lies with the person – and there is nothing that can be done about that.

These labels – vulnerable, elderly, frail, with underlying health conditions, disabled – became an excuse to dismiss the deaths. Oh well, what could you expect – they were already ill and then they got Covid-19, so of course they died. The government reassures the public still – it’s only if you are ‘vulnerable’ that you need fear this virus. But it’s become clearer and clearer that this has allowed a great toll of unnecessary deaths to be excused. The language has prevented criticism and deeper examination of why these people died. After all, they were vulnerable – so they must have contributed less, been a burden on society. The responsibility for their response to the virus was laid upon their shoulders. These people are vulnerable – there is little we can do – so let’s shrug our shoulders. Should they even expect them to have the same access to healthcare, social support, or respect even, as a fit healthy young person does? Their deaths are ‘to be expected’.

But what if the tables were turned – if the virus took the young and fit preferentially. Would there still be stories of the deaths of ‘vulnerable young people’ dying – so sad, but what can you expect? Would they be told off for going outside? Would they be expected to shut themselves away for potentially years on end as they wait for a vaccine? Doesn’t sound so ‘reasonable’ or ‘expected’ now, does it?

We are now seeing that this virus highlights many of society’s inequalities. That it is more likely to kill you if you are black, poor, live in an area of high air pollution. Are these ‘vulnerabilities’ too? Or are they risks? This virus has placed a magnifying glass on some of the structural biases within our society. Are we seeing institutionalised eugenics by neglect?

So, watch your language. As a disabled person I am at risk of an early death from many things, including this virus. We can do – and need to do – something about these risks. Don’t ignore your responsibility for calling for change by calling us vulnerable.

Dr Katherine Deane is a wheelchair using Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences and Access Ambassador at the University of East Anglia. She is working to remove barriers to accessing life so people can express their brilliance. Post Covid-19 re-opening guidance with a focus on disabled visitors available here https://embed.org.uk/covid-19-reopening

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

One thought on “Don’t call me vulnerable

  1. Katherine, I really liked your piece! As an older bloke, I’m learning now to understand what you have long known, than simple categorisations of people are deeply unhelpful and demeaning. The “vulnerable” tag really does help the government to get off the hook – and we mustn’t let it get away with it!

    Kind regards, Paul

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