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Pieter de la Court Medal winners talk about accessibility and the conditions of education

During the New Year’s Reception on 11 January 2022, the Pieter de la Court Medal was awarded to two students of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences: Orestes Kyrgiakis and Claire van den Helder. They tell us about the causes they fight for and what it means for the University to be better. ‘The model student that the systems are based on, is not representative of most actual students.’

About the Pieter de la Court Medal

The Pieter de la Court Medal is a yearly awarded prize of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. It is awarded to students or student initiatives that do voluntary work in relation to at least one of the Pieter de la Court themes: diversity, inclusion, entrepreneurship, world trade and democratization. Students cannot apply for the prize: they must be nominated by someone else.

Orestes Kyrgiakis won the Medal for his activism as part of the student committee No Student Without a Home.
Claire van den Helder won the Medal for the work she does for disabled people and against ableism.

The winners of 2021

The jury, comprised of students and employees, unanimously decided that two nominees deserved to win the Pieter de la Court Medal this year.

Claire van den Helder is a fourth-year Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology student who won the Medal for the themes diversity and inclusion. She was nominated by anthropologists Peter Pels and Jasmijn Rana. The jury called her a ground-breaking role model and was impressed by how Claire uses many channels and platforms to fight for her cause.

Orestes Kyrgiakis is in his second year of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology and he received the Medal representing the student committee No Student Without a Home. He was nominated by his fellow committee member Donna van Uffelen for the themes entrepreneurship and inclusion. The jury described him as an inspiration for others and driven to make a change in an urgent matter.

The winners’ causes

‘Housing is a big topic for everyone in the University – international students, Dutch students and employees alike,’ says Orestes. He tells us about the origin of the committee No Student Without a Home: ‘When the academic year starts, you see that people are struggling to find a house. It is shocking that many live in precarious conditions: there are people living in tents.’ Because of this, a group of second-year Cultural Anthropology students decided to create a committee to try and solve the housing issues that exist in the community of Leiden University. The committee’s most important tool is a petition with a list of demands they want the University to acknowledge, listen to and apply.

What Claire is fighting for, is less specific, she says. ‘Ableism and accessibility problems, it is everywhere! It is in all the systems! You can’t reduce it to only one project.’ The main goal of her efforts is not raising awareness, but making disabled people feel heard and seen. Her most important channels are her podcast ‘Gewoon Disabled’, her Instagram profile @bijzonder_autoimmuun and her involvement in the student party LVS and the Faculty Council. ‘I take it literally everywhere I go. I try to bring the human experience of being disabled into the conversation. When we talk about systems, we often see them from “above” and we forget that there are people out there actually living under these systems.’

She became active in participation bodies because of her personal experiences with digital education, which took up less energy than physically attending classes. ‘I didn’t realise that all this time I was putting so much effort into going to class that other basic things suffered under that, such as cooking and showering.’ Online lectures allowed her to follow classes without taxing her body. But as the COVID-19 situation developed, it became uncertain whether the digital education would stay. That convinced Claire to get involved and let her voice be heard. ‘It’s not “fun” to fight for accessibility,’ she stresses. ‘I do this out of necessity.’

The conditions under which students receive education

'It’s an issue of not being able to practice your right to education and not receiving the same quality of education.'

Both Claire and Orestes are fighting for causes that may have more in common than it seems at first glance. ‘I believe that the conditions under which you receive education, affect the education. You cannot discuss education without taking the conditions into account,’ says Orestes. Claire agrees: ‘It’s an issue of not being able to practice your right to education and not receiving the same quality of education.’

Because of all kinds of reasons, someone may be unable to receive an education the way the educator intended. Maybe they are disabled, have children, spend 80 per cent of their wages on rent, do not have an adequate place at home to study – all these factors influence the quality of education. The University treats everyone the same, ‘as if they have a home,’ says Claire, ‘as if everything is accessible, as if they can pay for it – but the problem is: all students are not equal.’

Education is a human right

Orestes and Claire agree: the University should do better to make education more accessible to everyone who might not be that hypothetical model student. But how can the University do that?

'The University should take responsibility and rethink what education is: not a service, but a right.'

‘Education was free once. We’re going backwards instead of forwards,’ says Orestes. ‘The University should take responsibility and rethink what education is: not a service, but a right. And if education is a right, it should be accessible to everyone, and housing is a part of that.’ He refers to the petition of No Student Without a Home, which lists a series of demands and things the University can actively pursue to create a better housing policy. One of the demands is that the University will guarantee that liveable and affordable housing will be available to all students, even if that means creating new housing facilities.

Claire reiterates that education is a human right, but we don’t treat it as such and that we therefore must redesign the system. ‘I’m an idealist: I really want to redesign the system,’ she says. ‘But I’m also pessimistic, so I try to keep it more practical. It seems so basic, but the least the University could do is make sure that every lecture is recorded and accessible online. The fact that that isn’t happening is painful.’ Claire also mentions that accessibility should be an important part of the University buildings, especially when redesigning them. ‘We don’t take into account that our body is not everyone’s body. The mindset needs to change.’

Be aware of your own blind spots

Claire encourages everyone to firstly educate themselves on ableism and its presence in the academic world, and secondly become involved in committees, (student) parties, participation bodies and other kinds of initiatives that fight for accessibility. ‘Learn what your biases are and reflect on that. And if you have the time and energy, join initiatives that help others.’

It takes many people for things to change

Orestes wants to stress that he is not the sole individual behind No Student Without a Home and that he only represented the committee when he received the Pieter de la Court Medal. ‘Things change when there is a type of collective struggle. We started with three people, now we regularly meet up with more than fifteen people.’ Power lies in the collective, and therefore Orestes, on behalf of No Student Without a Home, invites everyone to sign the petition.

‘Don’t compromise your needs,’ is Orestes’ advice for everyone looking to make a change. ‘Think based on your needs, not on what is offered. You get what you ask. If you don’t ask, you don’t get anything.’

Photos: Suédy Mauricio
Text: Emma Knapper

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