Hurdles for Students with Disabilities

7 May 2019

Students with disabilities have lower levels of higher education attainment than non-disabled students. In 2015, the Australian Government’s Institute of Health and Welfare reported that for people with a disability, 20 years and over, only 15% had a Bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 31% of people without a disability in the same age range.

Disability intersects race, gender and sexuality, and we have a department for each at the University of Melbourne. So why then, do we have a history of disability being overlooked on our campuses and within our student unions, perhaps most pointedly exemplified by the delayed establishment of a Disabilities Department and important Disabilities Space? And why do university services like Stop 1, which students with disabilities depend on to make it through their degrees, remain so difficult to access?

As a student with a disability, I understand some of the challenges. I’m a neurodivergent woman and when I become overwhelmed and exhausted by too much sensory information, toilet cubicles are my safe (albeit stinky) refuge. A Disabilities Space where I could have connected with other students with disabilities would have worked wonders for me in the friend-making department had it been around when I first started at the University.

This year, the first ever Disabilities Space in Union House was created. However, the Disabilities Department is still waiting on the University to approve the refurbishments before it becomes open to students.

Student representatives and a space built for students with disabilities are both significant achievements given what the National Union of Students’ (NUS) Disability Office Bearer, Will Edwards, had to say about his 2018 National Conference (NatCon) speech in regards to the inactivity within university settings and student unions around disability advocacy:

Over a phone-call, he explained that he asked the gathered audience to “Compare NUS’ commitment to last year’s [2017’s] Yes campaign to the abject lack of engagement with disabilities activism by so many in this organisation. Two out of four factions at this conference didn’t even write one disabilities policy between them. Activists in this organisation have ignored the needs of people with disabilities for too long.”
The importance of a Disabilities Space cannot be overstated for students like Angie, who is on the autism spectrum and has bipolar I disorder and anxiety:

Angie said they’d, “like to think Melbourne Uni is inclusive of people with disabilities.” Yet, “Some days [at university] I get quite close to having meltdowns/panic attacks. There isn’t exactly a lot of spaces I can go that’s devoid of people and sensory stimuli,” they said.

Angie goes on to say that whilst the University has “accommodated my learning needs–the fact that I have a [Student Equity and Disability Support] SEDS plan is living proof of that…sometimes I feel like because my disabilities aren’t as easy to see as a physical disability, that what I’m experiencing isn’t as valid, which makes me feel quite ostracised at times, and makes me feel like my voice isn’t as heard.”

Some of what the NUS Disability Officer Bearer Will Edwards had to say about university services also rings true for students with disabilities who have used the University’s Stop 1.

Edwards said in discussions with student disability departments at universities across the country, that it was common for students with disabilities to be left waiting weeks for a response or have their emails go unanswered from their university’s support services.

“Yeah from all the different university disability officers I’ve spoken to that’s been what I’ve heard,” Edwards said.

During a business conference in 2017, the former head of University Services, Paul Duldig, spoke about these changes:

“The view was the student experience was high- quality in terms of teaching but not necessarily high quality in the services being provided.”

He also said university services had previously had a “very fragmented approach” and offered “quite a disjointed service.”

This is clear in the differing experiences of students who have used the service. Henry, a student with fibromyalgia and myalgic encephalomyelitis; conditions which “mean that [he is] in chronic pain and [has] chronic fatigue” said that as an institution, the University “has been structured to place the burden of effort and responsibility on me, the ‘person with the disability’.” Henry said, “Stop 1 is a nightmare. The website is wildly counterintuitive and the long wait times act as a strong disincentive for seeking the help you need.”

This is extremely concerning as some students with disabilities rely on counselling services and the SEDS team for immediate advice and academic adjustments.

Lucy Birch, the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Disabilities Department Office Bearer for 2019 says the Special Consideration process is still confusing, and for many students experiencing difficulties that impact on their studies, the accommodations on offer aren’t widely known to them.

“Students don’t always know what they’re eligible for. The late withdrawal option isn’t always known by students. Students often don’t know anything about the decision-making processes since they are not public. It can feel like rolling a dice, not knowing if you’ll get a late withdrawal or a special exam.”

Late withdrawal refers to the decision students can choose to take if they suspect they are going to fail a subject. If a student has a medical reason or experiences an unexpected circumstance, they can withdraw without financial penalty.

“Many students have said if they hadn’t gone to UMSU Advocacy they wouldn’t have known that there were other Special Consideration outcomes. When acceptance is received via email, there’s only ever the one adjustment awarded. However, there are many options for adjustments and if you feel as though you have been given the wrong solution, appeal is a little known next step.”

I have personally been in this situation. Last year, I was unable to graduate from my Bachelor’s degree because my subject coordinator failed to provide adequate accommodations for me. I was instead given the inappropriate option to re-sit my exam but in the same conditions that had made the task inaccessible to me in the first place. I received a fail mark for the subject, and was ignored when I tried to explain why the “accommodation” was inadequate. If I had not gone to UMSU Advocacy, who informed me of my options, I wouldn’t have graduated. I would have just accepted the outcome of my subject coordinator who didn’t understand my disability.

Much like our labyrinthine bureaucracy, our campus also poses great challenges. A few months ago, I met a legally blind woman who was a former student at the University of Melbourne. She told me she had transferred to another university because she had struggled to get around the Parkville campus.

“It was four or so years ago now. So it might be different now,” she had said.

But Birch says physical accessibility at the University needs further improvement.

“The mix of modern and old architecture at the University means that in the past ten years there has been a concerted effort to focus on disability accessibility but there are still many outdated buildings that still cannot be accessed.”

She also said that the Disabilities Department this year has a “campaign budget going towards more accessible tutorials. Some hallways in older buildings are too narrow for wheelchairs and cluttered tutorial spaces where tables are in front of the door ways are also a problem.”

Caroline is a student with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome which “makes it very difficult for me to attend classes, concentrate…sit still for extended periods of time (I get muscle cramps and pain), and finish assignments on time”. They say of the accessibility of the University, that “a lot of students struggle to find accessible study spaces which hopefully the new Disabilities Space will go towards fixing.”

Independent of the Disabilities Space, steps are being taken to make the University more navigable for students with a disability, namely with the use of Accessibly, a website and app which uses three pins: accessible, partially accessible and not accessible to indicate a location’s level of accessibility. However, like the Disabilities Space, despite the University’s plans to use Accessibly this year, it remains unclear when exactly it will be rolled out.

From the current lack of a Disabilities Space, and the inaccessibility of the university campus and services, it is clear that profound barriers to educational attainment are still very much a reality for students with disabilities at the University of Melbourne.

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