How well are unis looking after disabled students?

August 06, 2015
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Twenty-nine-year-old Crystal Bruton is a vibrant, independent young woman. But her frustration when faced with treacherously steep ramps at some south-eastern Melbourne train stations is palpable – because for a wheelchair user, such barriers can be disempowering.

Crystal recently completed a PhD in criminology at Monash University. She has a physical disability that limits the strength and dexterity in her limbs, so she uses the chair to get around.

She registered with Monash Disability Services so she could contact them whenever she needed “advocacy or advice”. She made use of alternative exam arrangements during her undergraduate degree, and later found her PhD supervisors were “very accommodating and supportive” of her needs.

But while it seems access at Monash is better than that of some train stations, Crystal says there is still room for improvement.

“More accessible facilities [are needed] for the mobility impaired,” she says. “Older buildings need to update and upgrade according to today’s standards.”

She adds that the shuttle buses that ferry students between campuses should be accessible to all students.

Monash University spokesperson Adam Redman tells Hijacked a major “master plan” for facilities refurbishment is currently underway.

“Monash has a visible and strong commitment to inclusion, and to addressing any individual access requirements. We are proud of our efforts at inclusion, but we recognise we can improve. We have a dedicated disability services team and encourage any students to contact us with their specific requirements,” Adam says.

It is important that staff across the university have an understanding of disability and possible impacts on study.

And it seems many Australian unis are working hard to ensure they’re offering the best possible opportunities for all students.

The manager of Disability Services at the University of Sydney, Dagmar Kminiak, says her department exists to provide study adjustments to students with disabilities “so that they’re able to participate in their education equally”.

These adjustments are varied, and include things like allowing students to take extra time to complete assessments or exams, providing study material in alternative formats (hardcopy, softcopy, audio or braille), access to assistive technology and equipment loans, interpreting services, resting rooms, and transport and parking options.

“These adjustments assist students with offsetting the impacts of their condition, while not impacting on the academic integrity of the course,” Dagmar says.

In other words, the service provided is not - as it is sometimes assumed - giving students with disabilities an advantage over others.

“It is providing them with an equal playing field,” Dagmar says.

To help dispel myths and misunderstanding, Dagmar is attempting to raise disability awareness in both students and staff. She believes it’s important students understand the broad range of conditions that qualify as disabilities to ensure they know they can access services if they need them.

USYD provides staff and other students with disability awareness training so they can gain a better understanding of disabilities and their impacts on study. They also have an annual Disability Awareness Week and a formal Disability Action Plan in place.

“We’re really working on changing the culture of the university,” Dagmar says.

Everyone has the right to be given an equal opportunity to succeed in education.

Meanwhile, Monash has extensive disabilities services information on their website, a blog dedicated to issues for students with disabilities, counselling and online self-help services.

Crystal agrees that raising disability awareness within university environments is essential.

“It is important that staff across the university have an understanding of disability and possible impacts on study,” she says. “This has been important in helping me achieve my study goals.”

Dagmar points out that some students are hesitant to register with disability services because they’re concerned about privacy and confidentiality. She wants students to know that strict privacy protocols are in place, and that Disability Services at the University of Sydney doesn’t disclose a student’s diagnosis to the wider university.

She emphasises the importance of reaching out and making use of the services on offer.

“If you are experiencing a disability that impacts on your studies, the legislation states that you do have a right to request support, and that is why our service exists,” she says.

Crystal advises that being open with lecturers, tutors and supervisors is often helpful for students with disabilities.

“Flag any difficulties, challenges or possible problems that may arise, and talk these through with [staff] so they’re aware,” she says.

Dagmar’s passion for championing the rights of students with disabilities is apparent, and her ethos is instilled in the important service many Australian unis provide.

“Everyone has the right to be given an equal opportunity to succeed in education.”

Phoebe Hartley

Phoebe makes films, eats dumplings and studies journalism. She tweets sporadically at @phoebehartley.

Image: JoshuaDavisPhotography, Flickr Creative Commons license