Feature Article: Fair Go for Disabled Tertiary Students
By Evan Papamichael
Being disabled and studying can be a challenge. Evan Papamichael speaks with Disability Liaison Officers (DLO), Sophie Evans at Holmesglen TAFE and Matt Salas from Monash University about services available for disabled people at tertiary institutions.
1. What is your role as a DLO?
Evans: As a DLO at Holmesglen, I am here to assist students with disabilities. So, obviously there are a range of disabilities: students with physical, mental health, or learning difficulties. We’re here to assist them by giving equal grounding with other students. It might be providing support in class. Or enlarging documents if they have a vision impairment. We also buy equipment for students.
2. How much can you help disabled students?
Evans: There is quite a lot of support we can offer. We provide a lot of in-class support for students. This might be note taking or help from a tutor. We can also lend out equipment. It might be like an ergonomic chair for students with back problems. We can liaise with teachers if students have learning difficulties. They may need extra time for assignments and tests. There is also disabled parking which is convenient.
3. How do you classify a disabled student and what is your criteria?
Evans: They are students with physical, mental or learning disabilities.
Salas: We need medical documentation as proof of a disability being present, from their medical practitioner.
My next block of questions are about assessing the extent and presence of a disability. Secondly, whether adequate services are available to students. Thirdly, how do students approach a DLO officer?
4. How can a disabled student approach you?
Evans: OK, when they enrol in the course there is a section that asks them if they do have a disability and whether they want assistance. If they tick that, they get directly referred to student services.
Salas: Otherwise we come and do orientation. So we let people know that there is help out there. Their teacher might refer them, or if they want to, they can make an appointment at student services with a DLO like me or Sophie Evans.
5. Do you assess the extent or presence of a disability, or does a medical professional do so?
Evans: A medical professional does that. So in order for the students to register with us, they need to provide us with medical documentation. It might be an educational assessment from a psychologist or a letter from a physiotherapist, or from a GP.
Salas: Say if someone has a learning disability they need to have some sort of an intelligence test. They need to provide that first.
6. What sort of services are available to disabled students and are they adequate?
Evans: There are a huge range of services. We liaise with teachers and provide adequate in-class support for disabled students. We can help with their studies and the students appreciate that. It does seem to help.
Salas: You can refer to the Monash University website at: (www.adm.monash.edu/sss/equity-diversity/disability-liaison). We can make alternative arrangements for assessment, extra writing time or rest breaks during exams. Or we can organise a separate location, or computers for disabled students to type their answers in the exam .There are also in-class support workers available who are note takers, and there are sign language interpreters. You can have course materials in alternative print, electronic format, or in Braille.
All of the information from the DLOs appears as adequate support for disabled students but there are still flaws in the university system. Contrary to DLO’s claims that sufficient services are provided; blind students at University face neglect and hardship.
According to Aban Contractor, Higher Education Writer, for The Sydney Morning Herald, in ‘Disabled students seek a better deal’,…” blind and vision impaired students at university are disadvantaged. This is due to the rising cost of transcribing textbooks to Braille, large print and audio. Under a section of the Disability Discrimination Act, universities are allowed to claim financial hardship. They will escape their obligations to assist the blind or vision impaired who are enrolled at Australian universities...”
Greg Hampton and Richard Gosden state in, ‘Fair Play for students with a Disability’ that, “…Disabled students are required to enter into open competition with non-disabled students [at university]…and students with a disability are encouraged to minimise reliance on assistance…to ensure they properly develop attributes of independent learning…”
The above quotes are evidence that disabled students are neglected to some extent. This is unfair but there is little to be done about it. Universities have to keep up their credibility and standards to produce graduates who are professionals, independent learners and highly skilled workers.
TAFE comprehensively assists disabled students, through vocational training, to enter the workforce. The disabled students’ individual needs are met to enable this process to succeed.
According to the Townsville Bulletin…”the Barrier Reef TAFE in Queensland, transformed its engineering workshop to provide user-friendly equipment… [and]… re-designed lowered equipment, including tables and chairs, safety handles, and handbrakes to replace foot brakes to make the workshop more accessible for disabled students using wheelchairs...”
According to Nationwide News, “…at Tropical North Queensland TAFE there is a Skills for the Future program designed specifically for the disabled. It provides students with support and tools to re-enter the workforce, through tertiary study. Classes consist of activities related to employment, including workplace health and safety, job interviews, task management and vocational placement...”
D. Abey states in,‘Willing and able to work’, within an Illawarra Mercury newspaper, that, at Wollongong, Australia, “… Centrelink and Illawarra TAFE give disabled students work experience for eight weeks to learn valuable workplace skills. Students develop confidence and improve their resume...”
In conclusion I found that DLOs offer assistance to disabled students at both University and TAFE. More care is provided at the latter.
This is because TAFE is a more personal and integrated learning environment than University.