Not Special Enough14 February 2018
Special consideration is an important university service, but some students are becoming concerned by the inconsistencies with which staff apply its provisions. Vast differences in how staff approach a student’s needs are raising questions around the extent to which staff seek out information and support made available by the Student Equity and Disability Support (SEDS) system.
The University’s special consideration policy currently has two versions. The first applies when the duration of impact is less than six weeks, whereas the second operates on an extended basis and covers disabilities, health conditions or official commitments.
University of Melbourne Student Union disabilities office bearers, Jacinta Dowe and Hien Nguyen, explained, “long-term special consideration can be difficult to get, and for many disabled students the process of reapplying every semester is very tiring and sometimes impossible due to complicated heath and/or life situations.”
Long-term special consideration permits a student to adjust their study appropriately to suit their needs with guidance from SEDS. This involves altering assessments if required, modifying class attendance hurdles and permitting extensions, thus allowing students with a range of needs to participate in the academic environment.
The University sets an initial orientation session for staff, where academics are informed on how to help students with additional needs. However, a tutor, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that in training, “the term ‘special needs’ is left pretty vague, so we aren’t told specifically how we can address the exact aid that a student might require… though the framework is there for assistance.”
SEDS offers additional advice for staff, including learning modules and guides for academics written by students with disabilities. Dowe and Nguyen explained that despite this, “lecturers and tutors can make judgement calls about whether they think the student is entitled to support that is covered in their academic adjustment plan.”
As a result, “this creates a stressful dynamic where students feel they have to prove that they are entitled to support to individual academic staff on a case by case basis.”
Despite the staff training, some students have had difficult experiences with the system.
Arts student Niamh Whitford said, “the paperwork can be very confusing, without staff direction I’ve found the online form somewhat unclear, and with the University’s health service so busy the process can be difficult to complete.”
However, she also feels that the support process has made definite improvements, stating, “in the past year I found that more tutors were making us aware of the resources available.”
Amy McCormick, an elite athlete and biomedicine student, said that though she found the process of communicating with all her teaching staff difficult, she felt fortunate for her largely positive experience.
She explained that she has also received a significant disparity between what professors have offered. While many staff members respond compassionately to her needs, others only issued a 24-hour extension despite her landing from an overseas competition that day.
A science student, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that they found the process of reapplying each year and having to prove they still had a disability or long-term consideration need was “overwhelming”. This ultimately influenced the major the student pursued, taking them where they felt they could most trust the staff.
The student emphasised the inconsistent treatment from staff within their faculty. “Some have been extremely supportive, assisting in providing extended deadlines [and] support in tutorials—one staff member even came to my alternative exam venue to ask how I was going.”
“Meanwhile, I’ve had other staff refuse to meet with me, and one staff member told me to consider withdrawing from their subject if I didn’t think I’d make the attendance hurdle—they weren’t willing to abide by the attendance adjustments outlined within my academic adjustment plan.”
The University’s Disability Action Plan requires that students with disabilities and other special needs have equal access to study, and that the University extends support to staff to ensure compliance with disability legislation. Anecdotally, most staff seem to support their students and facilitate academic adjustments. However, consistency, adequate training and a knowledge of available resources need to be further implemented to ensure that the special consideration system affords all students the assistance they deserve.