Thursday, 28th February
So, here’s the T. The scoop. The whole story. No hyperbole. Not even a purpose. This is my experience, plain and simple.
For most students during this time of year, the buzz of O-week is in the air. Knowing we are about to embark on a new part of our journey in our lives is simultaneously nerve-racking and exciting. What makes it even more exciting? O-week is all about kicking off the year with a bang! You don’t just go to meet your lecturers and collect all the info required to start the year off on the right foot – you know, the actual orientationstuff. O-week is all about the parties – the booze and the music, the shenanigans that people get up to… well at least that’s what I’ve gathered.
So of course, I’m just as keen as the next person to get in on all the action… and why wouldn’t I be? Sure, I wasn’t exactly starting my year with any mates at the same campus, but I had enough hope that somehow, I would make some friends this week. I mustered up the courage to go to these events alone despite my painstaking fear of meeting new people and travelling on public transport into the city.
The orientation part of this week was first, and it went well. I wouldn’t say I had a blast but I met some people from my course who I was able to make small talk with and I got a lot out of the info sessions so that was fine. What I was really looking forward to, was the street party. Every year, it would seem, RMIT holds the Bowen Street Party for higher education students. RMIT students can register for free food, drinks, music and freebies as well as a Ferris wheel. From the email I got, it looked like a lot of fun and so I booked a ticket and off I went.
Now obviously this particular day was a scorcher – a fact nobody could control, I will acknowledge – 27 degrees didn’t exactly have a great effect on my energy levels. Also, while I was very much aware, I was going alone, it hadn’t fully occurred to me to make arrangements to bring somebody with me since this was more of a festival than an organised gathering. Crowds were huge and most people came with friends or family to buddy up with for the day. Again, my own undoing. But here’s where things got a bit tricky.
I think the reason the crowds were so big was because this wasn’t exactly a controlled or “exclusive” street party. While in order to get free stuff you had to register for a pass (and to register you had to be a student), it wasn’t like the event was cut off from letting anyone else in. This made the lines to access everything extremely long and there was no way I could stand in that heat and wait. I spent the first hour walking up and down Bowen street observing and then eventually actively looking for a place where I could get a bottle of water where the line wasn’t so long.
Eventually I gave up looking and all I could manage to do was switch between different spots of shade and watch the scene play out before me feeling utterly alone. I attempted to meet up with some people I had met at my program orientation the day before by sending a post out online, but nobody answered. Every so often I would take another lap of Bowen street hoping the lines had gone down or the heat had cooled off. But every time, I came to the same disappointment. The lines got bigger and the weather got hotter. My dress was damp, and my eyes were stinging from the sweat. My body was weak and so was my eyesight.
When I figured, I was going to pass out if I didn’t get a water ASAP, I decided to suck up my pride and ask a lady at a nearby stand for help to find some water. She ran off to grab me some and I was extremely grateful. In saying that, despite the “all you can eat and drink for not a single cent”, that was the only thing I had all day.
One of the first and few stands I visited that day was the stand for a political party which I immediately recognised as the same one my parents were in when they were my age. I walked over and examined the sign beside the stand. A young woman came out from behind the booth. She greeted me with a smile and then proceeded to tell me the name of their club (the political party). I was almost tempted to say; “you know I can read, right?”. I mean come on, I was literally looking right at the sign when she said this. Of course, I bit my tongue. Instead I returned a polite nod to which she asked me “does that sound like something you would be interested in?”. Now, sure this seems like a valid enough question… except she hadn’t exactly toldme anything.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I would assume that before you ask somebody to join your club you would give them a little more information to consider other than just the name. You know? To really “sell it”. How about: what are your values as a club? What’s your purpose? What the do you actually do? Why do you do it?This woman didn’t give me a single detail. Though my parents were already proud affiliates with the party, she didn’t know that. For all she knew, I knew nothing about this party and what it stood for. Still, I signed up because I knew what my parents always stood for, plus despite my poor introduction to this club by the young woman, my own curiosity won me over.
However, as I was filling out my email address, I looked up at some of the other club members at the booth who were in the midst of recruiting people and I overheard them having actual conversations with potential club members about events that were coming up – like international women’s day – and suddenly I felt like I was being cheated. I had asked the woman what this club did, and she made a vague statement about organising protests and holding discussion groups but that was it. I realised that despite my curiosity, she couldn’t be bothered to properly recruit me… either because she didn’t believe I was mentally “all-there” to have an actual interest or because she was just simply not interested in anything I might have to bring to a club like this.
Either way I knew that I was experiencing a form of discrimination. Though it may seem minor to some people, if you could’ve only stood where I stood, you would have felt exactly how I felt… invisible, unworthy and definitely alone.
So, this put a damper on my mood, and I was feeling slightly off beat. After finishing signing up, the woman at the stand took back the clipboard with a smile and returned back behind the booth. I made one last attempt to glance over at the table that was covered with flyers, pamphlets and newspapers which she neglected to hand me. When the woman didn’t say another word, I knew it was my cue to leave.
Between my switching to different areas of shade and taking laps up and down Bowen street, there was all but one part of the street party of which I had certain access to; the dance and performance stage. One of the creative clubs – a dance club – was alternating between holding mini dance lessons for passers-by as well as showcasing the dance squad’s routines. I resigned to watching the performances for most of the day. I didn’t join in, but I paid attention to the dance moves being taught, the same way I did in my own dance classes. There were a lot of talented people up there and I was thoroughly enjoying it all.
Then the emcee announced that one of the club members was handing out flyers to the crowd to join their club for free dance lessons. I watch as a young girl went around to hand people the bits of card. As someone in the front row, it wasn’t hard to miss when she handed a flyer to the person on my right… then walked STRAIGHT PAST ME… and handed a flyer to the person on my left. Now, it wasn’t as if I was hiding behind somebody, wasn’t as if she couldn’t see me. I was right in front of her. In fact, I could’ve sworn I almost saw her about to hand one to me before giving it to the next person beside me and then walking off. For the second time that day I was almost tempted to call out. But I was paralysed by the feeling of utter embarrassment for even being there watching the performance in the first place.
Maybe I wouldn’t have joined the dance club… but maybe I would have. Who knows? The bottom line is I wasn’t given the choice. The choice was made for me by a stranger who knew absolutely nothing about me! Other than the fact that I had a disability – which evidently is all she saw. She didn’t know that I had spent the past thirteen years of my life as a dancer. She didn’t know that I had always loved dancing from the time I was little girl, and I wasn’t exactly terrible either! Just like the girl from the political club didn’t know that my parents were members of the same party when they were youngsters and that I grew up learning about the values, ideas, history, policies, theories of that party. That I had already been to protests or meetings since I was a kid in my mother’s arms.
Both of these people made assumptions about me purely on what they saw – a girl in a wheelchair. Not a human being, not a student, just a disability. Its hurtful, its humiliating its down-right discrimination. I never thought that the first thing I would write about my new university would be this damning recount of that day’s events. But what I do know now is I sure do have a big fight on my hands if I’m going to live in this world with some ounce of dignity and respect.
University ain’t no different from every other place around here after all.