By Richard Liddle
“Growing up autistic, growing up disabled, growing up with these kinds of experiences – from a very young age I had to fight for myself.” Errol Kerr is autistic and suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a condition affecting connective tissue which can cause issues with hypermobility, dislocation and pain while moving. He’s also something of an activist extraordinaire – his CV includes founding the Disability and Neurodiversity society at Newcastle University, acting as chair of the university’s Student Council, and chairing Autistic UK, a nationwide advocacy group run by and for autistic people.
I’d asked him what the catalyst was for him to get so heavily involved in activism, but it turned out that in a way he had always been involved. “When I was younger I was used to having to, for example, attend legal tribunals to make sure that the school was actually providing support for me where I needed it,” he tells me. As an adult, this experience carried over into further efforts to promote accessibility at Newcastle University, when Errol helped to found the Disability and Neurodiversity Society (DANSoc) in 2016.
“When I was about 20, when I was coming to terms with my admittedly worsening physical condition at the time, I realised that there wasn’t a space available for people with chronic conditions or disabilities,” he says. “When it came to autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and other neurodivergent conditions the only space available was run by the university wellbeing staff rather than students… It felt a lot more medical, a lot more academic.”
DANSoc was set up as a social and support space for disabled and neurodivergent students to define as their own. “I wanted to kind of give people back that agency,” Errol says. The society expanded, and it led Errol into further work promoting accessibility across campus – for example becoming involved in a report which surveyed disabled students on lecture capture technology, which at that point was often underused. “I was trying to promote the use of access tools in lectures and seminars as much as I could.”
What, I ask, was his proudest achievement from his work at the university? “That’s a really difficult one,” he replies. “Not just because there’s a lot that I’ve done, but more because it’s difficult to feel pride in doing things that are necessary. I find it difficult to be proud of myself when I often feel that the things that I do are part of a necessary fight.”
He gives the example of helping to alter the university’s PEC (Personal Extenuating Circumstances) rules regarding bereavement. In 2017, Errol’s close friend and DANSoc co-founder Daniel Wood sadly passed away – but initially the university was unwilling to grant extensions or other support while Errol dealt with the loss. “The issue was that he wasn’t quote-unquote ‘family’, and the system was awkward around that, but I got them to start changing those things. It was necessary to support not only myself but also other students,” he tells me. “Would I say I’m proud of that? Yes. Did I feel it was necessary at the time and do I feel it’s necessary when it comes to those discussions? Also yes.”
Moving on from his time at university, Errol notes another of his achievements – putting together the Future is Gold conference for Autistic UK last year. He brought in speakers from across the globe, including Steve Silverman, author of Neurotribes (“if you haven’t read it,” he says in an aside, “and if you want a half-decent understanding of autism – you read that book, that is the foundation book”), as well as delivering the closing speech himself.
We finish the interview by looking to the current coronavirus lockdown and what it means in light of accessibility. Errol has a lot to say on the matter. “As soon as we went into lockdown and all these access measures came into place – lectures being captured, being able to work from home in several different roles, or accommodations being made if you’re working in different spaces… for me it goes to show that of course this could have always happened.”
“I think we’ll have to see when all of this has lifted how many of those access measures stay in place and if they don’t, we want to start having conversations about why,” he finishes. If those conversations do need to happen, it’s clear there are few people better placed than Errol to lead them – throughout the interview his passion for raising awareness and increasing accessibility has shone through, and it’s clear he’s more than prepared to keep fighting.