Starting to study at university is an exciting, formative step for all students. Free from the limitations of childhood and the strict structure of high school, to begin studying at university is an opportunity to take control of one’s own education and future.
University students with disabilities often face significant barriers to education and may find some aspects of campus life difficult or exclusive. Fortunately, the Australian higher education system works under legal frameworks designed to protect the rights of students disabilities and provide a positive, inclusive university experience.
Rights of Students with Disabilities
University students with disabilities have a right to a fair education and whatever reasonable adjustments make obtaining this possible. Tertiary institutions are obliged to make all reasonable adjustments that will not cause “unjustifiable hardship” to the institution. These may include captioning technologies for hearing impaired students, wheelchair accessible desks or access points, or interpretation services for students whose disabilities affect their ability to communicate.
Importantly, under no circumstances is an education provider allowed to victimise, humiliate, intimidate or otherwise discriminate against a person with a disability. Institutions must take steps to inform staff and students of these obligations and if discrimination does occur, the university is answerable to Australian law.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act (1992), Australians living with disabilities are legally protected against discrimination in all areas, including education. Additionally, the Disability Standards for Education (2005) aim to ensure access, participation and inclusion for Australian students with disabilities, upholding students’ rights and eliminating disability discrimination in an education setting. These standards promote collaboration between students, carers and other associates as barriers to education are identified and addressed and equal opportunity is established with regard to admission and enrolment, course/program participation and use of facilities and services. All education providers, tertiary or otherwise, must adhere to the Disability Standards for Education.
Australian universities are able to provide several support services to students living with disabilities or ongoing health conditions. These may include:
- Assessment adjustments
- Exam provisions (including time extensions, quiet rooms, etc.)
- Equipment and assistive technologies
- Liaison, advice and advocacy
Students are able to meet with disability services staff to discuss their access requirements and create a thorough document, sometimes called an Access Plan, that identifies the impact of their disability, outlines their needs and plans for any necessary provisions. This document can be presented each semester to relevant members of staff.
Making It Work
Outside of the world of documents and legislation, there are some things that students with disabilities can do to take control of their education and get the most out of their university experience. These include:
While lecturers and professors may be experts in their fields, often they may know little about disability or the specific conditions affecting their student(s). Taking the opportunity to speak with your educators about the ways in which your disability impacts your learning experience, or providing them with a basic overview of information that is relevant to your disability as it affects your education, could be extremely beneficial in furthering their knowledge and improving their ability to provide equitable education for you and future disabled students.
From exploring the campus for suitable access points prior to commencing study to keeping on top of readings and course materials, preparation is key to university success. By learning about your rights as a student and what supports you are entitled to, you will be better able to ensure that your needs are met. It’s important to think carefully about what to bring to university. Any adaptive devices or aids that you find helpful for managing your disability should come with you. It’s also a good idea to make yourself aware of the locations of campus disability support facilities, accessible toilets and health services.
As your university start date draws closer, it’s wise to start thinking about travel arrangements. While most universities have good public transport access, it’s important to ensure that these facilities are, as they should be, disability inclusive. Students arriving by car should research parking availability (including disability friendly bays) and cost, ensuring easy access to classrooms. Some universities are also able to provide on-campus transport for students who have difficulties with walking long distances. The availability of these services can usually be discussed with the institution’s disability support staff.
From disability liaison teams to clubs and social groups, some of university’s greatest joys come from community. Most universities offer a student disabilities club where you can meet and get to know other disabled university students across a wide range of study areas. You can also join special interest clubs to connect with like-minded people.
Several financial supports exist to help disabled Australian students achieve their tertiary education goals. The Higher Education Disability Support Program provides funding to education providers to remove access barriers and better support disabled students.
The National Disability Coordination Officer Program works to enhance inclusivity and improve disability access to university education.
The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education is funded by the Department of Education and hosted by Western Australia’s Curtin University. It aims to inform the design and implementation of public policy and institutional practice, reducing educational marginalisation.
There are several scholarships available to Australian university students with disabilities. These include:
- Australian Disability and Indigenous People’s Education Fund
- Established to assist students with disabilities from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds, this scholarship offers students quarterly grants of up to $2,500.
- Gregory and Dolores Farrell Scholarship
- This scholarship offers up to $5,000 to eligible Year 12 or undergraduate students who use a wheelchair for mobility and are undertaking full or part-time tertiary study in NSW.
- June Opie Fellowship
- Available to permanent residents and citizens of Australia, New Zealand or Canada who have a severe disability, this one-year $NZ 12,000 fellowship is intended for students planning to undertake postgraduate study, especially with a view to entering university teaching or research professions.
- ParaQuad NSW Scholarship
- Up to $5,000, this NSW/ACT scholarship is open to ParaQuad members with spinal cord injury.
- Redkite Education and Career Support
- Redkite grants support students between the ages of 15 and 24 who have undergone cancer treatment.
- Sir Charles Bright Scholarship
- This annually awarded $1,500 scholarship is available to South Australian people with a disability undertaking post-secondary education.
- Vision Australia’s Further Education Bursaries
- Vision Australia provides bursaries of up to $6,000 each for the purchase of adaptive technologies to university students in NSW, ACT, VIC, QLD, NT or TAS who are blind or vision impaired.