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Dismantling the barriers that hold back disabled students

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Every parent with a university-bound child knows the two-stage, multiyear torment: first comes the hard yards of year 12 and the quest for an ATAR score that will secure a place in a tertiary institution.

It can be tough for everyone, yet it is so much harder for students with disabilities.

The anxieties and uncertainties expand exponentially, not least the fear that a condition like, say, dyslexia will prove an insurmountable barrier to gaining a tertiary qualification.

That’s the challenge and – in years gone by – the curse that doomed so many to lifetimes of thwarted and unfulfilled potential.

These days, there is much more help and support available. There is also that most precious commodity of all: Understanding.

Many tertiary institutions employ own disability liaison officers. Other DLOs are employed regionally and shared across campuses, especially in the TAFE sector. DLOs can help with:

  • talking to students and finding out what they need to make the introduction into study easier;
  • putting students in touch with other students who have similar support requirements;
  • information about scholarships and grants;
  • pre-enrolment advice;
  • special entry schemes;
  • application and enrolment advice.

Disabilities, like humans, come in all varieties, so it’s a natural temptation to assume that such conditions can’t and won’t be understood.

Why should it be otherwise? In many cases the pre-university years have been marked by a sense of otherness and exclusion, even schoolyard bullying and abuse, that leave psychological scars and a legacy of perceived failure.

help for disabled students
Tertiary institutions have come a long way in the help they offer to students – and staff – with disabilities. Photo: Getty

The good news is that empathy on modern campuses isn’t merely lip service. Not only does every Australian university now regard the disability community as integral when defining “diversity”, the philosophy of inclusiveness extends to students and staff.

Here’s how a Deakin University academic, whose name is withheld for privacy reasons, described her own experience:

“Three years ago, I became very ill with a chronic condition. I have been enormously grateful for the support of the university, which has allowed me to adjust my work practices to continue being a productive full‐time employee,” she said.

“I have been able to continue producing quality teaching and research, and I feel a real commitment to the university.

“I have often experienced the same thing with the students for whom I am responsible – young people going through difficulties, given a modicum of support, flexibility and understanding, can be steered from personal crisis and dropping out to being happy and productive and successfully graduating. I have seen this many times”

“Sam”, a 20-something with pronounced hearing impairment, is typical. His condition left him among his peers, he was bullied and his slow, deliberate speech was misinterpreted by many as a symptom of intellectual disability.

Sam dropped out of school, left home and drifted into a half-life of drugs, drinking and four wasted years. Then came the day he took a long, hard look at his life and decided that if he didn’t do something, nobody else would.

“I want to make my life meaning something and that’s what drives me, so I will be able to leave something in this world,” Sam said.

Reflecting on his own journey, experience has taught him “a lot of people with impairment do lose their way – they lose confidence in themselves”.

“I was working, just being a machine in a factory job, and after a while you just tell yourself you can’t stand there day after day,” he said. “I just couldn’t bear continuing with drugs.

“I just decided ‘stuff this, I’ll make a change’.”

And what a change. After a TAFE spell for make up for the troubled high school years, Sam is a happy, confident and optimistic psychology student whose goal is to join Queensland Police and pursue a further speciality in criminology.

help for disabled students
A report by LaTrobe University recognised the progress – but pointed out how much work was still to be done in the area. Photo: Getty

Sam is one of the lucky ones. For others the hurdles are even higher and more numerous. But, as a 2015 appraisal of campus support for those with disabilities noted, it isn’t just students who need to recognise problem areas and to adopt.

Conducted by academics from Melbourne’s LaTrobe University, the sweeping survey noted that, while universities’ approaches and policies to those with disabilities are changing, they need to be much more than words on paper.

Universities, the report recommended, need to go the extra mile to make it easier for students to reveal their disabilities. Then, when they have done, to accept the support that should go with it.

“This is problematic, as many students are concerned about the risks to their reputation which may accompany disclosure,” the report states.

The solution lies in campus-wide policies that stress inclusivity across the board. They allow students like Sam to feel that they are small tiles in a broad mosaic of non-judgmental acceptance.

“Students, disability services staff and teaching staff all have involvement in the processes of identifying learning support needs, developing learning support plans, and negotiating how reasonable adjustments are implemented.

“Yet, with multiple people involved, the extent of collaboration in these processes was seen as variable and not consistently or easily negotiated.”

This might sound simple in theory. But, as LaTrobe concluded, it is “complex in practice”.

“The processes involved in supporting these students include identifying, negotiating and implementing learning supports, processes in which multiple people need to be engaged.

“Many types of individualised reasonable adjustments were identified, reflecting diversity in the students, as well as in the learning tasks, assessments and learning environments for which the adjustments are intended.”

Simply put, that could mean something as relatively simple as replacing written tests on request with oral exams for students burdened by dyslexia or panic attacks to a broader and more flexible use of distance learning.