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Inside the Disability & Higher Education Report: Where’s UNSW?

In November, The National Union of Students (NUS), the Australian Law Students’ Association and the Australian Medical Students’ Association released a joint statement calling for an urgent reform of disabilities legislation and standards within the higher education sector. 

The report demonstrates significant concerns regarding the systemic neglect of disabled students and staff.  

Citing the changes previously recommended by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSHE) and People with Disabilities Australia (PWDA), it urges for immediate changes in disability discrimination, funding of disability services, and the recognition of external barriers for disabled students. 

NUS Disabilities Officer Isabella Harding told Tharunka that the statement “was written by d/Disabled students for d/Disabled students based on lived experience.”

“It is the voice of d/Disabled tertiary students which is a voice often not heard in the disabilities space or student activism space. It shows that disabled students and staff are suffering under systematic ableism.”

The report summarises 15 recommendations into 3 key points.  

1. Legally, disabled students and academics remain vulnerable to discrimination

The report highlights Australia’s failure in the legal protections of disabled people, and the lack of acknowledgement of systemic biases by our higher education institutions. It states that even though the legal recourse against disability discrimination may exist in theory, it is not being upheld. Disabled students and staff are reported to be receiving inadequate care, insufficient funding and the below reasonable adjustments/accommodations of which they require. 

To mitigate this, the student organisations recommend that stakeholders and universities endorse the request for urgent legislative reforms to the government. Notably, these requests include establishing a Disability Education Commissioner to actualise accountability for the implementation of these reforms. 

2. Changes to disability support by universities remain necessary

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a lack of targeted learning support and resources for disabled students. Institutions instead opted for a ‘general-purpose’ model of education which strayed away from the recommended Universal Design for Learning (UDL), designed to give all students equal opportunities to learn. 

Recommendations include implementing UDL-informed approach to education, as well as compulsory disability awareness training for students and staff.

“Universal Design for Learning is the gold standard for education as it contains multiple ways to engage with the content”, said Isabella Harding, “Hybrid education with remote and in-person options supports international students, working students and carers/parents”.

“Only 17% of d/Disabled Australians have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 35% of non-d/Disabled Australians. And we are more likely to drop out. It is concerning that higher education is not built for us and this report outlines what needs to be done for us to be supported”, she said. 

It’s to be noted that UNSW’s Guidelines for Accessible Courses are scheduled to be completed in June 2023. This have caused for the existence of courses where accessible learning (especially to do with exams) isn’t available.

3. External barriers exacerbate the inaccessibility of higher education 

Asides from financial barriers, the Disability Royal Commission in 2021 states that people with disabilities are 2.2 times more likely to risk sexual violence in comparison to people without disability. LGBTQIA+ disabled students, and those from CALD and First Nations backgrounds are more likely to be affected. Young women with disabilities are also twice as likely to report having experienced sexual violence than those without. 

“Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment (SASH) and the predominance of SASH at university is an issue that impacts all marginalised identities. Particularly, d/Disabled women are at risk for SASH and our voices are often ignored or cannot be communicated because there is no disability aware infrastructure (e.g. staff with an understanding of d/Deaf culture)”, said Harding.

“I believe that greater attention should be paid to the improvement of complaints and incident portals, especially at UNSW,” said Rahme.

“Students with disabilities are subject to one of the highest percentages of sexual, physical and structural abuse on and off Australian campuses. As such, we need to understand the significance of a safe, comfortable and reliable space for their voice to be heard; a voice that is central to effectively enacting the improvements listed by this joint statement”.

The report states that there is relative inaction by TEQSA and the majority of universities as demonstrated by their current Disability Action Plans. 

As of now, UNSW’s Disability Inclusion Action Plan for 2022-2025 does not address the issue of disproportional sexual violence against disabled students as one of its priorities. 

UNSW, where are thou?

While the ANU Disability Students’ Association and various bodies of the University of Sydney were signatories to the report, there was an absence of any student body or organisation from UNSW. 

Harding believes that “the onus is on higher education providers, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and the Department of Education to make higher education accessible to us. They have failed to take our demands seriously and now disabled students fight to improve things.”

“As of today, no higher education providers have reached out to me to improve their content delivery”.

Michael Rahme also shares the same sentiment. “The current state of the support, training and reporting initiatives for and of people with disabilities in UNSW has some definite need for improvement”.

“While we do have some incredible services for this demographic present on our campuses, their lack of centrality and advertisement creates a huge accessibility barrier for our students. If this advocation is accepted with no compromise, UNSW and Australia would find a more considerate educational structure that caters to challenges not singularly faced by students with disabilities, but also the many other demographics that struggle with barriers in tertiary education”, said Rahme. 

As the awaited Disability Royal Commission looms in 2023, it remains to be seen whether UNSW will respond to this statement. While Michael Rahme believes that “UNSW should be at the forefront of empowering this voice”, Isabella Harding stresses the importance of its urgency,

“If higher education providers take education for all, not just the privileged, seriously, they need to act.”

Read the full report here.

Editor: Hamish Mcpherson



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