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Oxford University’s first disabled African scholar is being prevented from beginning his studies

23 Aug 2016

Eddie Ndopu is a disability rights activist who will be the first disabled African student to be accepted into Oxford University with a “full scholarship” to study the Master of Public Policy degree at the Blavatnik School of Government. This scholarship does not take into account Eddie’s disability needs as part of his maintenance. Costs totalling $33,000 (£25,028) are urgently needed by 31 August to purchase an automated wheelchair and pay for his carer’s travel, living and accommodation expenses.

Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at the age of two, at which point he was given a life-expectancy of five years, 25-year-old Eddie has defied all medical prognosis, and excelled as a scholar and activist. Originally from South Africa, Eddie holds a degree from Carleton University in Canada, has given multiple speeches at the World Economic Forum and was named as one of the best 30 thinkers under 30 by Pacific Standard Magazine. Eddie also held the position of Head of the Youth Program for Africa at Amnesty International.

Eddie’s work is particularly astonishing as he continues to endure, and productively channel, the interlocking experiential prejudices of being black, queer and disabled. His case also touches on a pressure point for me: I am a person of colour who has also been awarded a full scholarship to Oxford commencing in October. They will be funding my tuition and maintenance fees for three years as I undertake an Art DPhil on Sun Ra and Wagner, but unlike Eddie, my physical ability will not act as a barrier to taking up my scholarship. I have filled out the same financial declaration forms; nowhere on which does it even ask about disabilities.

It’s well known that Oxford University urgently needs a more diverse student body. There are countless incidents, such as the ‘Colonial Comeback Cocktail’ an abhorrent concoction created for sale and advertised and distributed on flyers on the same day as the reparations debate at the Oxford Union, to 2015 statistics which show that “more than half of white students achieving three A*s at A level and applying to Oxford in 2010 and 2011 were awarded a place, compared to one in three Chinese or Asian students, and less than one in four black applicants”, and documented student experiences such asI, Too, Am Oxford’ – an online campaign initiated so students of colour can demand and facilitate a discussions on race to spur institutional change.

colonial comeback cocktail

I have spoken with disability co-ordinators at Oxford University and their response was essentially that “of course” they want Eddie to go to Oxford, but, “what does it have to do with me?” I explained to them that Eddie has highlighted an epic flaw in their scholarships: an assumption that every scholar is able-bodied. Collectively, we need to wake up and create a more inclusive academia. This is our responsibility as human beings. Oxford University is an astronomically wealthy institution, and Eddie’s predicament is so incredibly frustrating, because the funds clearly exist and can be sourced through dialogue and organisation between the institution and the South African government.

“They [Oxford] assumed that I would able-bodied, so they did not account for the 24-hour care I will need,” Ndopu told Mail & Guardian recently. “There is no visa category for a caregiver who needs to accompany an international student with a disability because this has never happened at Oxford.”

Eddie’s case is incredibly unique and therefore requires a unique solution. We live in a world of tick-boxes. Categorization is a necessary linguistic tool to navigate the administrative world, so we must create new categories, new tick-boxes and more nuanced options, to reflect the complexity of the spectrum of scholars. Eddie’s crowd funding page may potentially raise the money required within the given time, but crucially, we need to put Oxford University and the South African Government under more pressure to take responsibility for their discriminatory policies in their graduate funding schemes and visa categorisations respectively.

Eddie’s MA at Oxford will be essential to the continuing success of the Evolve Initiative – a global organisation he founded with the aim of closing the access gap for people with disabilities. Eddie is fearlessly exceeding and breaking the expectations and boundaries of what disabled young African people can achieve. eddie2

This fight, if won, will be the beginning of something much bigger. Eddie’s activism will be facilitated so he can have further impact on the world. We must fight for this as fellow human beings. Through collective awareness and mass dissemination we can ensure Eddie receives the access to information he deserves.

Oxford University has responded with the following statement: We have awarded a place on our Master of Public Policy programme which is being accompanied by a full academic scholarship. The University provides high-quality support to staff and students with disabilities to meet their needs in work and study. Oxford fulfils the legal duty to make reasonable adjustments with the utmost care. In this case, we are also working hard to explore financial options which can sustain the type of all-round support already being funded and provided long-term to the applicant in his home country. We welcome the determined, enterprising and creative efforts being made to fulfil the opportunity to study at Oxford by the applicant and his many friends and supporters.

Donate to Eddie’s costs here.