Feature image: from left to right, Vice-Chancellor Attila Brungs, Patrisha Domingo and Sarah Houbolt. Credit to Terry Clinton. 

Students with Disability

I was a perpetual student, spending seven years in an undergraduate course, exploring all of my options. This meant also that I had seven years to test out and implement my access requirements with various academics and subjects. And seven years to observe some good, and some not so good, teaching.

When I started university, I knew the deal about registering with student support services to ensure I got what I needed in order to learn. Often I would also introduce myself to the lecturer at the start of the semester to reiterate my needs. Not my disability, but my needs – my access requirements. This is a very important distinction, as someone’s medical diagnosis is no one else’s business.

To be fair, there comes a certain confidence around talking about access requirements when, at age five, you start a long term media interview campaign about disability. The conversations about my personal experience would sometimes be inappropriate, sometimes really innovative, and sometimes what Stella Young called Inspiration Porn in this TED talk. In all areas of my life, I found that what actually makes me feel comfortable is when the person I talk to uses language like accessibility and leadership, rather than special needs.

At UTS, not every student with disability has had experience talking about their access requirements. Sometimes disability is a new experience for students, with recent diagnosis or absence of peer support to make sense of the world. Sometimes students have had the same old conversation over and over that goes nowhere, despite the legislative requirements to provide access. It’s up to us to be aware of these processes. So how do we navigate this territory then? How do we make sure all students have equal futures?

How to make students feel comfortable

One of my strongest memories of university was in a summer school subject about European politics. The academic decided to play a video in class. He knew I was registered with student support services for exam provisions. And he had noticed that I look very closely at my page when I read and write. So when he played the video, he asked if I wanted him to read out all of the English subtitles and describe important action. Yes please! The courage, generosity, observational skills and direct actions of that academic meant I could fully learn. Like everybody else in the room.

Now in my role at UTS in the Equity and Diversity Unit, I’m hearing some good stories of how academics make students with all sorts of access requirements feel comfortable. One student has reported that it’s the little things that make a huge difference, like preparing and circulating class material at least two days ahead of time. Another student reports that having control over where he sits in class is crucial for his access requirements. Why? Because accessibility actually means altering or modifying or providing environmental conditions that are comfortable and useable for all.

Some academics have also invited guest lectures from UTS staff with disability in order to cover accessibility within subject content. One in five Australians have a disability, so this is great, as accessibility covers every aspect of our lives, so it is always relevant. And it demonstrates to students in your class that you are aware of access and inclusion, and that you consider it important.

How do I remember all this?

It’s simple when you think about it. To unleash full potential, you could think of access requirements as our efforts to:

  • Make the verbal visual
  • Make the visual verbal
  • Make the kinaesthetic and tactile possible
  • Make the engagement real

Sound fair? We think so, and so does the law – particularly the Disability Standards for Education and the Disability Discrimination Act.

Need help?

As the first blog in a series on accessibility in 2017, let’s get specific about access! Let me know what you want to know, and keep reading! Need more? I am also available to come to your office for a 15 minute tailor–made snapshot approach on how to make your teaching environment universally accessible.

And there is always the Accessibility Awareness Training for UTS staff on 19 April (click here to register).

  • Hi Sarah & all. I went to Sarah’s Accessibility Awareness Training this morning and it was a great opportunity to self-reflect, share experiences and ideas about what access means for different people, and play some cool games Sarah led (love the deaf whispers and dancing exercise!). I’d highly recommend the session to all staff is Sarah runs another one.

  • This is a helpful post thanks. I’m going to share amongst my team (U:PASS leaders). We also do a couple of activities to help the team understand different learning needs – perhaps I could show you the activities and you could give me your feedback? Let me know.

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