Standing up for what’s right and for what I believe in has always been the top of my priorities as I have grown up, I believe in equal chances and equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of ability. I have had Cerebral Palsy since birth, affecting all four of my limbs and causes me to use an electric wheelchair, leading to many difficult situations. I have never let it defeat him, to see the positives and trying to make the best out of a bad situation, trying to strive for the best I can. Those with physical or mental disabilities are capable of achieving anything they want if only given support, time and half a chance. I always stand strong and enable who I really am, shine through rather than let my disability overshadow who I really was.
Always having these beliefs and these priorities in life is one thing, but putting it into practice is a different thing entirely…
Student Elections 2017
In my first year at De Montfort University, I finally had a chance to be able to put my beliefs and values into action to help my fellow disabled students at University by running for disability representative in the student union elections. I felt I could use my knowledge and empathy towards different people with disabilities would benefit me in my role as a disability representative at De Montfort University. I wanted to make sure that everyone despite their disability had a positive University experience and take advantage of everything they want at University.
During election week in my first year I wanted to show people that I’m more than just my disability, that I’m a bubbly and social person who could bridge the gap between those disabled students who are too anxious and don’t want to speak up and the Student Union voicing everyone’s opinions and views in the most effective way possible, creating transparency between both parties.
While I was out campaigning in my first year I was conscious about speaking to as many students as I could in person about their experiences at De Montfort University, finding out what they would like changed and, or made better. I wanted to know how I could help disabled students, based on my own ideas and their feedback.
One of the things were set up social media pages particularly Facebook and Twitter pages in which I could correspond with disabled students about issues that they may be facing at University and that they think other disabled students need to be aware of like a lift being out of order, that way every disabled student is informed and I could contact who I need to for them to come out and fix the problem. I think what is also important is addressing those problems that not only with those the physical disabilities but with a mental disabilities have to help them in their University study, which is why if I was elected, I planned to set up and organise a biweekly surgery, lending a sensitive ear to those students who are in need of it. Being in the same if not similar situations to other disabled students, I felt like I can speak from experience and advice them without making them feel patronised. I wanted them to feel like they could talk about any issues they are facing at University and see the best way I can help them.
While out campaigning on campus all week, I created a social media campaign with mirrored my aims and objectives as well as offering potential voters another way of contacting me if they prefer not to talk to me on campus or thought of any further questions and queries they for me.
I made some wonderful new friends and was so grateful for their help. It was a very busy stressful week, but in a strange way, it was amazing and I ran on a buzz and adrenalin all week.
Results day came and I anxiously waited for the verdict of the Disability Representative category to be announced. I was up against two others and I secured 575 votes which gave me second place in the Student Unions elections 2017.
Student Elections 2018
After much debate and weighing up the pros and cons, I decided to run as a candidate for the Disability Representative role at De Montfort University’s Student Union elections 2018. I was disappointed that I didn’t win the previous year’s election, but I felt more confident this year as I knew how the elections were and more skills I could use in my campaign. I knew in this year’s campaign I wanted to use the same aims and objectives that I used in the previous year’s election, still allowing my beliefs and views in equal opportunities for all disabled students and for them not to feel restricted by the barriers that face them, to never give up as the virtues of my campaign. As I started to plan my campaign for this year, I learnt that one of my friends happened to nominate me for the Disability Representative role this year and this gave me more confidence in running for the role, distinguished any doubts I had and that other people thought I would be a good Disability Representative.
I wanted to enable disabled students to have all the chances and opportunities everyone does at University encouraging disabled students to achieve their full potential while studying. To enable disabled students to do this, I promised that if I was elected I would make sure to liaise with the Student Union for any issues that disabled students are having around campus that might be affecting their University lives are dealt with timely, efficiently and as sensitively as possible. Moving on this idea, I decided creating an active Facebook and Twitter account as I had planned to last year would allow me to correspond and help disabled people in their University’s experience.
Going out to campus to campaign, I knew what approach I was going for when campaign, I wanted to show my bubbly, friendly and social personality; I wanted to show my fun, social side who is there to provide sensitive, empathetic ear for those who want some advice or just someone to talk too. Very much wanting to be able to do this, my idea to organise and set up a biweekly’surgery’ whereby disabled students at DMU could arrange to talk to me about any disability-related issues and, or anxieties that may be affecting them, where I could try and help solve on a case by case basis. I would not be patronising or condescending towards them and lend them a sensitive ear for as long as needed. I wanted to show people that they could rely on me to help them and be there for them, I also respected that some disability students may not feel comfortable or confident enough to talk to me in person, so I promised an alternate form of contact via email that they can contact and speak to me about any issues that may be concerning them.
I had a stressful election week, but I also felt such an achievement. I had a chance to speak to students around the University campus and get to know them and learn about their lives and experiences of DMU and how they felt towards things. I knew that if I wanted my policies to be effective then I had to speak to my fellow students about current problems that were affecting them and how they felt towards issues I was raising, which allowed us to get in a mutual conversation with each other. I wanted to create an environment in which I would ensure every student with a disability feels equally and fairly represented, allowing them to secure all of the possible opportunities they can. I wanted to make a difference!
Reaching the end of election week 2018, I was able to spend time with my fellow candidates, some of them I already know and some of them I didn’t. Stopping to take a second, I realised I had gotten to know great groups of people in my time as a disability representative candidate and though we had all been campaigning some of us against each other, we were all students at De Montfort University wanting to make it the best it can be. Win or lose I had made a great group of friends over these past 2 years and that is what I needed to take away from the experience.
The next day happened to be my 22nd birthday and I woke up that morning feeling optimistic but also feeling a sense of numbness to my surroundings, as well as it is my 22nd birthday it was also the day of the results concerning the for the Student Union elections 2018.
Arriving in the Student Unions bar where the results show would be held, I saw a manic scene in front of me. I sat amongst a group of friends who were all whispering encouragement to me, but I didn’t want to hope. As someone stepped forward to read the name of the Disabled Representative, my ears went fuzzy, I was just aware of friends giving me the thumbs up or crossing their fingers as they looked at me, anxiety twisted in my tummy as the host read out the results.
With 1,105 votes Sophie Abel was duly elected Disabled students Representative!
#ABILITY IS STRONGER THAN DISABILITY
Every year during elections, there is always some form of drama, small squabbles and petty actions towards other candidates. All of us had thrown all our efforts into our own campaigns and we didn’t want to get involved in any drama and get sidetracked by the drama and risk-taking our eyes off the price, but despite this, we all get pulled into it in the same way. In the Student Union elections of 2018, the pettiness began when students started to pull candidates’ posters down as well as demanding campaign material and discarded in bins or stone across the campus floor. The majority of foul play came with the voting system and how it was operated.
Along with running a social media campaign, all of the candidates campaign out in person, talking to as many students as possible describing our campaign and our aims and objectives that we hoped to achieve if we were elected and allow potential voters to put faces to the candidates’ names, we also wanted to talk to our fellow students to find out how best we could help them with their University experience. Then after convincing them to vote and only with their permission, could we log them into our IPADS and guide them through the voting system, allowing them to cast their votes for you and any other candidates they wanted too. We cannot under any circumstance wait for the student to log in and then take the IPAD off them of cast votes on their behalf for yourself or other candidates.
Allegations of cheating began when candidates were reported to be standing in groups with IPADS, blocking students pathways as they tried to walk through campus and pressuring them to vote in that year’s elections. We could not pressure them into voting, it was against the rules, they had the choice whether or not to vote and to be honest its common sense and being polite to the student. On the same line to allegations of pressuring students to vote, there were allegations of allowing the student to log into the voting system and then taking the IPAD off and taking over, casting their own vote both for themselves and the candidates that were their friends before finally logging them out or else casting their votes for themselves, waiting for them to leave, before voting for their friends and candidates before finally logging them out and moving onto the next potential voter. Candidates and potential voters noticed votes had been cast on their behalf categories no longer appeared on their drop-down menu when they had logged in to vote. Students reassured the candidates whose categories they hadn’t voted for themselves that they had been holding out to wait to meet candidates before casting their vote, which proved votes had been cast for them without them realising.
I agree, candidates including me stood in groups so we could be near someone with an IPAD, also taking advantage of being able able to socialise with each other and having a laugh in between speaking to the potential voters, which allowed us to get to know new people but also relieve any tension we were feeling, which definitely helped me, if it didn’t anyone else.
These allegations proved to be true and as a result, protests followed the election results to draw attention to these actions secure extra votes and the candidates themselves. Following a number to protests, meetings were held to have discussions of how to proceed with the evidence coming to light. In all of the time that passed between the election and the allegations proved to be true to the number of meetings and to the silence, I felt myself deflate and feel more and more like my victory was meaningless. I felt truly saddened by the whole situation and feel angry for myself and other candidates who ran a good honest campaign.
There was such an uproar following Elections 2018 that when everything went quiet I was first alarmed, but then relived. To my knowledge, correct action had been taken towards those candidates involved in the allegations and who was proved to be cheating and everything else had been left alone. A few weeks later, I was contacted with what I thought to be an email congratulating me with successfully securing the role,, but I felt myself break when I realised what it really was. The University Board of Governors had met and discussed the Student Union elections of 2018 and the events surrounding it. The Governors concluded that they were not satisfied with everything that happened and the conclusions they had drawn, instead, there was going to be full re-election on the Student Union elections of 2018 and this would be the only possible outcome.
However, the re-election decision couldn’t be finalised until all of the candidates involved in the elections had to write a statement regarding our opinions on the possibility of a re-election and our vote on this, I knew in the back of my mind that the governors had already made their decision but had to ask for statements as that was protocol for them.
I understood the seriousness of the situations surrounding the student Union elections 2018 and the reasons why they would have to be a re-election for it all to be resolved calmly and peacefully after everyone had put so much effort into their campaigns, but I was really hurt that I was lead into a false sense of security by the situation of the elections not being addressed for months after the election and I assumed that the proper action had been taken towards the candidates involved and then it was all put to bed and roles had either changed or stood as they were, but instead they had waited all this time to make decision and now the knife twisted deeper and harder.
Those candidates who had run a good honest campaign were getting punished and penalised for a small number of candidates cheating and their petty attempts to secure the role in the Student Union for the next year. There was no exact proof that we’d all cheated so why should we all be punished.
I didn’t entirely understand the logic behind organising re-election, first of all, many of the students that had voted already were due to graduate and the new intake of students wouldn’t understand what was going on enough to give us their vote. A re-election election would also affect the number of votes that the elections would get, the Student Union happened to get over 6,000 votes for that year and this number would drop significantly if re-election was put into place. As much as we didn’t want to admit it, I feared that the re-election would distinguish the confidence we as candidates gave potential voters and how we persuaded them to vote for us and now we couldn’t deliver on our promises, instead, we would be asking them to vote all over again. Thinking I had secured the disability representative role I had already pre-planned how I would achieve my aims and objectives as soon as I started back in September of 2018, due to the intensities of my promises I really didn’t want to be sidetracked and delayed on achieving what I promised my fellow students as I knew it would take me three times as long to rebuild and reorganise everything. I know from experience how hard it could be for a disabled person to settle in and get used to new things particularly around campus and everything involved in university life so I was determined to deliver on my promises and not make anyone else suffer for the actions of some candidates.
A crushing blow came in the form of an email which explains the Board of Governors had made a final decision regarding the re-elections and they had decided that the results in the March results were made redundant and if we wanted to be a part of the apart of the Student Union we would have to take part in the re-election process which would take place in the next academic year and it was the fairest way to deal with everything. Despite the reassurance that they did consider our statements in their decision, I knew that it was just a formality and the decision had already been made ages ago.
Why did this have to happen on the year I was elected disabled student representative?
Student Elections 2019
The re-election that was planned never did happen, Student Union was run by volunteers to smooth over the transition between student elections 2018 and the next student elections. When the decision of the re-election was first announced, the Student Union did offer all of the candidates involved support, but the elections of 2019 were approaching fast and still, there was no sign of much response regarding elections 2018 and re-election, which I was really angered with. Receiving no news and no communication from the Student Union whatsoever I really started to lose confidence and faith in them as my hurt deepened, I tried to push it down but the hurt and the anger was always there.
The election of 2019 was coming up and I was at a crossroads, I had to decide whether I was going to run for the Disability Representative role in this year’s elections. Weighing up the pros and cons, I accepted that the third year was very difficult and running in the elections would just add to my stress, but I knew that the role was very important to me and I wanted it to be able to change student’s experiences of University. My inner debate went on and on and I couldn’t decide whether or not to participate.
After considering it, again and again, I made the agonising decision not to run in the student union elections 2019. Some of my friends asked me why I didn’t run and I couldn’t quite explain it to them exactly, but I had completely lost courage in the Student Union and I felt I didn’t want to work with them anymore despite how painful not being able to have the role was. It was incredibly hard to see all of the new candidates running for the roles as well as reading the manifestos and even more painful not being able to be a part of election week, however I knew I had made the right decision as I needed to concentrate on my studies, plus I knew my conscience was clear based on the previous year’s elections, I had done nothing wrong and I had run a strong campaign which led me to my strong victory.
I knew I had this winning and though it still pains me to this day that I didn’t get involved this year, I made the right decision.