By Emrys Travis
I should preface this piece by stating in no uncertain terms that, as a Brit, I am neither patriotic, nor under any illusions as to the objective awfulness of the state of disability rights in the UK. The red tape disabled people have to fight through to get benefits and adjustments, especially under the Tories, is heartbreaking. I could publish a litany of shitty experiences I and my disabled friends have had in every country we’ve lived in and every institution we’ve worked or studied at.
My personal experiences of Italy and England, though, fall under two very different facets of shittiness. For better or (mostly) worse, the cultures and values of each country have a foundational hand in shaping the context in which disabled bodies exist within their borders. To some degree, this piece is just a rant, with some attempt to analyse the reasons behind my own experience peppered in; my homogenisations of British and Italian culture will reflect hugely on how I, as a white, middle class, non-visibly-disabled person am treated within and by those societies, and I want to underline that I’m not trying to claim any great generalisability of mine and my friends’ experiences.
Nevertheless, disability is not talked about enough (in either Italian or English). So, here I am, talking.
Italy is a country where it feels – to me, at least, a covert crip with an autoimmune disease and various mental health particularities – like the only conception of “disabled” is “wheelchair”. That’s a fairly universal observation whatever country you’re in, but it feels even more potent here, in a place where a friend of mine who asked the university for support with his anxiety was sent straight to the pharmacy, where he was offered a box of diazepam. Living as a wheelchair user in Siena, with its steps, hills, cobbles, and inaccessible palazzi, would indeed be all but impossible. Studying here as someone with multiple “invisible” disabilities is a similar, but different, kind of debilitating. Where I’ve found UK student culture to value (to a degree) difference and individuality, university in Italy seems more homogenous; my friends in cities like Bologna and Milan seem to be having very different experiences, but here in Siena, a tiny town that feels even more bubble-like than my home university town of Cambridge, there’s an unspoken emphasis on “fitting in” with your fellow students that makes me stick out like a sore, queer, disabled thumb. Identity-based activism here is, despite my best efforts to search for it, practically non-existent – so how do I find my people, when we’re all keeping the things that make us different quiet, glossing over our identities and experiences in order to seem “normal”?
Whilst I fully recognise that every cultural generalisation I can make about an entire country that I’ve lived in one corner of for six months will be probably contingent and potentially contrived, what I can state with pure certainty is that the Italian university system, at least, is out to get me. Someone definitely sat down one day after breakfast with a glass of red and listed every possible way to make academia at the university of Siena opaque, neuronormative, and manageable only for people with what my chronically fatigued brain perceives as superhuman energy levels. That last point applies to Cambridge just as much if not more, of course – but at Cambridge I can drag myself to one or two 50-minute lectures per day and then write my essays in bed, rather than being expected to be present and correct for eighteen hours of lessons a week, in seating that’s made for people with functioning joints and muscles, who don’t have a panic meltdown when made to be shoved up shoulder-to-shoulder between perfect strangers for two solid hours with no means of escape. At Cambridge, you know roughly what your exams will consist of. At Cambridge, it’s socially expected that the pleading emails you send your supervisors asking for extensions because you accidentally slept for eighteen hours will actually yield responses, however snippy.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Italian university examination system, it goes like this: you wake up hideously early, dress smartly-ish to kid yourself you know what you’re doing, and grab breakfast with your classmates to quiz each other on the birth, death, and publication dates of three dozen Italian poets. Your whole class shows up at 9am, except the professor, who arrives twenty minutes later and announces that he has work to do for the next hour, after which he’ll do six (individual, oral) exams, and then take a three-hour break for a “departmental meeting” (read: almost definitely a long lunch). Your study group traipses wearily between the library, coffee breaks, cigarette breaks, and the nearest fast-food place; your smart-ish clothes amass a litany of espresso- and curry-ketchup-based stains; as it gets dark, you make your way back to the professor’s office, lining the corridors for several more hours until you’ve all had your terrifying twenty minutes and can finally drown your sorrows in an apperitivo. If you’re like me – chronically fatigued, chronically in pain, and chronically stressed by unplanned changes in schedule (thanks autism) – you spend the next three days in bed, because being out of the house for a solid ten hours waiting to talk about Italian literature for twenty minutes isn’t something you can just adjust to with no physical consequences.
Bitterness aside, whilst I was at Cambridge I thought it would be the hardest thing I would ever do. Now I’m here, I miss it – a system that, while endlessly pressured and often confusing, guides you through what’s expected of you far more than this one. Academia based on developing and applying skills, rather than on amassing and deploying knowledge and facts. A student culture where I can find and pick my social circles based on shared experiences of marginalisation. Of course, each system and environment probably benefits some whilst disadvantaging others; my experiences are not by any means objective, and Cambridge, too, is a really crappy place for so many disabled people (including myself, in a multitude of ways). I’m not sure how to conclude, because this piece isn’t intended as a pros-and-cons, or a stars-out-of-ten – accessibility isn’t that simple or objective, and disabled people are no less a monolith than non-disabled people. Wherever you are, wherever you live or work or study, there will be a myriad of ways in which that place is hostile to us, infinite stages of design and development in which we were not considered. Learn to notice them. Start to speak up. Otherwise, the work is left to us – and we already have enough shit to deal with.
Read more from Emrys Travis
(Photo creator, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sprochello/)