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"Please don’t ask if we’ve tried yoga”: Students fighting for disability support

Despite the University’s push to make learning accessible, through programs such as SEDS and Access Melbourne, there have yet to be endorsements from students that these programs are appropriate. Instead, students feel silenced and powerless in an institution that should be prioritising its student body and ensuring an equal and inclusive environment.

content warning: ableism, mental illness

 

University is expected to be an exciting and exhilarating experience for students as they step into the freedom of adulthood. Jan Sam, who began studying at the University of Melbourne in 2018, has instead been in a tug of war with the University for accessibility support. They are one of an increasing number of students demanding greater action from the University to increase inclusivity and accessibility assistance.

Jan has mobility issues and visual impairment due to an underlying and untreated medical condition. Last year, after a serious collapse on campus one day, Jan was told they would receive a call from Student Equity and Disability Support (SEDS) to discuss learning accommodations. 

Students who apply for special consideration through SEDS are eligible to have adjustments made to their studies to ensure they are not disadvantaged in their learning. This can include captioned lectures, academic extensions and use of physically accessible spaces.

However, Jan accidentally missed the call from SEDS. After trying to contact them again, they were told that no one had called them, even though there was a voicemail from the department that showed otherwise.

Jan then decided to book an appointment with SEDS, but they never heard from the department ever again. 

“It was a very disheartening experience,” Jan said.

“I was forced to take a leave of absence as I wasn’t able to cope with both my studies and disabilities due to the lack of accommodations and support.”

Approximately one in five Australians live with a disability. Additionally, the Australian Network on Disability suggests that 18.9 per cent of people with disabilities aged between 15–24 years face discrimination because of their conditions.

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, ‘disability’ is broadly defined to encompass all different types of conditions, including physical, intellectual, sensory, learning and neurological just to name a few.

However, despite extensive legal protections provided under the Act, individuals whose disabilities are classified as ‘invisible’—that is, a disability that is not clearly physically debilitating, like chronic pain and autism—still have to battle against being invalidated and questioned about the seriousness of their situation. Aruma, an Australian disability service, suggests that of the Australians who live with a disability, 90 per cent have a disability that is regarded as ‘invisible’.

Third-year student Luana Donadon also had a difficult experience accessing disability services at the University.

“I don’t ‘look’ sick, and people tend to not believe how much my disability impacts me because of it,” she said.

Luana tried to organise a meeting with SEDS to get an Academic Adjustment Plan, but was met with repudiation.

“It was 30 minutes of the Stop 1 person testing my medical condition and asking me if I’d tried yoga. I mean… sounds like a joke yeah?”

“You come in with official documentation asking for support with a chronic condition and they ask you if you exercise”.

For many students with a disability, a great concern has been the lack of closed-captioned lectures. The Disability Team within SEDS has been accused of being slow  with the captioning process, placing students in an academically compromised position.

“It makes me angry because we shouldn’t have to fight for closed captioning in the first place if the University thinks it emphasises diversity and inclusivity,” said Jan.

The pandemic has further shed light on how poor the University has been in providing resources to students in need of assistance with their learning.

Prior to COVID-19, Luana was told by the University that in-person attendance was compulsory, even though she stated she was in too much pain to attend.

“It’s a pretty ableist move, and it’s infuriating that it took a pandemic for them to make classes more acceptable,” she said, referring to the online transition the University undertook last year.

According to a spokesperson, the University is developing a new Disability Inclusion Action Plan that is expected to outline how they aim to foster a more accessible system for the next several years.

“[We’re] introducing a new team structure to better align with student needs,” said the spokesperson.

“We are constantly learning from our experiences and those of our students, undertaking critical reflection on our systems, structures, attitudes and behaviours, and implementing actions to effect change, to become more welcome and inclusive.” 

Despite the University’s push to make learning accessible, through programs such as SEDS and Access Melbourne, there have yet to be endorsements from students that these programs are appropriate. Instead, students feel silenced and powerless in an institution that should be prioritising its student body and ensuring an equal and inclusive environment.

“People with disabilities are human beings who deserve to be valued and respected,” Jan said. “I hope no one ever feels as though they have to prove their disability in order to be supported.”

“And for crying out loud, please don’t ask if we’ve tried yoga,” Luana said.

Farrago reached out to the UMSU Disabilities Office Bearers for comment but received no response.

If you or someone you know is struggling with accessing disability services, you can reach out to UMSU Advocacy for further support.

 
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