Mad About Inequality: Students with Disabilities13 May 2019
Limited data seems to exist about the prevalence of disability amongst the student body at the University of Melbourne. Is this because there are relatively few students with disabilities, in which case, is it because there are barriers to them accessing higher education? For this article, I spoke to three students: two had vision impairments and one a hearing impairment. As a non-disabled student, I hope to centre the voices of these students in this discussion. I also hope to discuss mental health related disabilities in a future edition.
How does having a disability affect one’s education? The three students I spoke to told me about a wide variety of accommodations, or, as one student put it, ‘workarounds’, they employed to complete their studies.
Ronny Andrade, a PhD student in the field of human- computer interaction, who has a vision impairment, said, “I’ve always tried to cope with it in the least intrusive way. For example, a way in which it affects is I can’t really see the whiteboard, and when I was doing my undergrad: for example, we’d have a whiteboard maybe as long as this wall, like 8 metres. And I would just move from the left
to the right of the room, like in class, while the professor was writing. I’d tell them in advance, and the professor would understand, wouldn’t mind. … Then here, because people don’t really use whiteboards anymore, that’s not a problem. Here with the fact that they upload the slides helps me to follow what’s going on. I have had one or two classes where the professors upload the slides after the class because they have some in-class exercises. But I sent them an email and I told them ‘I really do need the slides in advance, could you please send them to me’, and they say ‘yeah, sure, we’ll send them to you as long as you don’t share them with anyone else’.”
Bridie Cochrane, a fourth year Bachelor of Arts student, who also has a vision impairment, she also relied on slides being distributed in advance of class. She said, “as problematic as it may sound, I am lucky in terms of I present as able passing. I pretty much just have my glasses, and occasionally I have to pull out my phone to take pictures, or something, and then zoom in, or I have a big cursor on my laptop, and enlarged font on my phone.”
Both students told me that their vision impairments didn’t prevent them from finding their way around campus, but they had concerns that this would be an issue for students with more severe vision impairments.
Ronny was concerned that “for someone with low vision, [who’s new to campus], with all the construction going on, [might] experience trouble finding their way around.” Bridie told me that “Lack of braille trails on campus is a problem for people with canes or guide dogs.” She told me she occasionally used Lost on Campus to help navigate but that that wouldn’t be appropriate for students with more severe visual impairments as “Lost on Campus is still primarily visual, as well, because it’s a map app, so you still have to be able to view the map to get around.”
Yige Zhang, a second year Bachelor of Science student with a hearing impairment told me: “I have some minor to moderate hearing problems, so if it’s in a smaller room, and people speak quite loudly, just like face-to- face, I don’t have any problems. But in the lecture theatre, it’s really big, lots of people there, the recording might not be that good and because of the echo, I do have difficulties, and every time I need to go back home and listen to the recording again.”
He also said infrastructure available at the University to students who use hearing aids: “Basically, there are two modes on the hearing aid—one makes the sound louder, the other is telescoping—it just listens to the microphone directly. But the quality of telescoping in each lecture room is different.”
All three students were reliant on either lecture recordings or slides being made available in advance,
and found that this was automatically the case for most of the subjects they had taken at the University. When it wasn’t, Bridie and Ronny had been able to access slides by contacting teaching staff and requesting them. No one I interviewed was able to speak to whether issues arise for students with disabilities in courses that are taught mainly by writing on a board, where PowerPoint slides are unavailable and lecture recordings capture just the audio.
Yige also told me about the challenges of participating in a tutorial with a hearing impairment: “I find in tutorials, small group discussions might be a little bit hard for me, because, as an international student as well, the English ability might also be a factor for me as well. People in a small group, … people sitting around a table, might talk in different volumes. And there are other people at another table might affect your hearing. …But usually, because I’m doing science, there’s not much group discussion. But I used to have Arts classes in the past, just last year, and group discussion is quite annoying.” He also said his hearing impairment may have made it more difficult to learn a second language: “you find it harder to listen. … for the volumes with higher frequencies, for example, the character ‘s’, that’s really hard for me to hear. For others, like ‘j’, that’s easier.”
He also mentioned how being Chinese and having a disability had intersected for him: “In my culture, my mum said she doesn’t want me to have a hearing aid, she wants me to overcome by myself, because if I have that, she will think that I have some problem, that I’m different from other people. So there might be some people with hearing problems in China that don’t have hearing aids, also because of the high cost.”
As a PhD student, Ronny also raised with me that issues can arise for academics with disabilities when field- specific software is inaccessible. In particular, he knew of an academic with a vision impairment having issues with software called Overleaf. Overleaf is a document- sharing program similar to Google docs for documents containing formulas and is widely used for collaboration in STEM fields. According to Ronny, it is also completely inaccessible to screen-readers.
So how do students feel about the support services offered by the University?
Ronny and Bridie had both interacted with Student Equity and Disability Services (SEDS), and Yige also told me that he’d had positive experiences accessing support services through Stop 1.
Regarding SEDS, Ronny said: “They’re lovely people. They’re amazing, but I think they’re understaffed, and the thing is they also have to deal with special consideration. … They do get very involved. They work together with a student, they develop a comprehensive plan and strategies to facilitate their integration to normal lectures and work, stuff like that, and they can arrange for someone to take notes for you, or to make recordings, which is really helpful.”
Ronny also mentioned Andrew Normand, who runs the Web Accessibility Program at the University. “He usually runs studies with students with disabilities, and he gets them to try different software or different websites of the university. I know he has done extensive research on accessibility in the LMS.” He also told me about Andrew’s website where he has tips for teaching staff in supporting students with disabilities, collated from students’ experiences and perspectives: https:// www.unimelb.edu.au/accessibility. As a casual tutor myself who has never heard of or seen this website before, nor received any particular training around supporting a student with a disability, I’m amazed Andrew’s resources aren’t more widely distributed nor a central part of teaching training programs.
As a current GSA Councillor, Ronny also told me about how he had started work on a Disability Advisory Committee, which looks at disability throughout campus and offers actionable suggestions on how to improve accessibility. The Committee has already been involved in providing advice to the new Melbourne Connect project.
However, these students also faced issues in accessing the support the university provides. Bridie told me she’d once been required to fill out a paper form to be granted special accommodations whilst recovering from eye surgery, and when she’d called Stop 1 to ask if she could fill it out over the phone because she was unable to read the form because of her surgery, was told she should get a friend to help her fill it out. Ronny also mentioned that supporting students with disabilities is not part of all tutor training, although some faculties have begun inviting SEDS to give short presentations at their training sessions.
Yige mentioned that some lecturers who like to pace don’t wear microphones whilst teaching, making the lecture recordings unusable to those who couldn’t hear during class and hoping to catch up. He also told me that being able to automatically caption lecture recordings, as YouTube videos already are, would be extremely useful for students with hearing impairments. He said a friend of his with a more severe hearing impairment, who was also an international student, had to drop out of a University of Melbourne foundations program due to lack of support for his disability. This all raises the question of how much the University is obliged to ensure its foundation programs are accessible.
Ronny and Bridie both said their disability affects their willingness to attend certain kinds of social or extracurricular events that occur in and around the University, with Ronny telling me “I wouldn’t go to an event in a pub, because I don’t like loud and dark places, because I don’t see well ….Those types of events wouldn’t appeal to [me].”
Knowing how to support students with disabilities can be extremely complex as students have such different needs. Students are required to be very proactive in accessing support. Ronny said: “We need not to be shy, to say, ‘I can’t hear well’, or ‘I can’t see well’. I guess if there’s stigma, try to move in and be cool about talking about these things, and recognize that if you need an extra hand ask for it which is difficult. It’s difficult, but it’s necessary, because we have saying in Spanish, ‘ if you don’t cry, you don’t eat.’ ”
Bridie said, “There’s so much we can learn from each other. I only know my way of living, and I’m honestly super curious about what it feels like to be able to see things. We have a lot to offer each other. A lot of support to give. It’s almost just like we might just have different personalities.”
I welcome feedback, comments and criticism, particularly from students with disabilities. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am currently seeking gender diverse (trans, non-binary, otherwise non-cisgender) students to interview for Edition 5.