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Sydney University to launch new Disability Action Plan

There is still a need to change attitudes toward disabled students, writes Alisha Aitken-Radburn

Credit: Sadami Konchi at Urban Sketcher.org Credit: Sadami Konchi at Urban Sketcher.org

The final workshop in a series of faculty consultations before the adoption of a new Disability Action Plan (DAP) for 2012-2015 has highlighted an undercurrent of continued disability discrimination within the University.

Students and staff at the workshop discussed the polarised attitudes towards people with a disability on campus. In addition, a former USYD student and now academic staff member expressed frustration that even well-intentioned handling of his mental health and disability issues had been “overly bureaucratic at times, reflecting ignorance of mental illness, and lacking empathy”.

One student said that upon asking a librarian at the Freehills Law Library for assistance in photocopying a book on 24-hour loan the staffer refused, as it was “not part of her job description”.

SRC Disability Officer Ella Alexander has been contacted by a large number of students this year encountering negative attitudes towards disabilities on the part of individual lecturers and certain faculties. “This played out in responses to requests for assessment adjustments and in particular, in special consideration requests,” she said.

“It became clear that the resistance was in part due to lecturers not actually knowing what they could or should be doing to help,” explained Ms Alexander.  “As well as being time poor: having no time to help the student by, for example, printing a document in larger font.”

At the workshop, Professor Gerard Goggin from the Department of Media and Communications, who specialises in disability research and policy, derided the language of ‘reasonable adjustments’ framing the DAP. “These statements are not the statements we should use in 2012,” he said, “We don’t talk about Indigenous people in this way so why talk about people with a disability in this way.”

Prof. Goggin recalled the achievements of the 2006-2010 DAP, with reference to the Laffan Fellowship for University researchers who have or have experienced significant disability, as well as the overhaul of the physical environment of the campus to increase accessibility. But he also highlighted that the culture within the University was yet to be addressed. “The University either has a strong vision or they don’t,” he said.

DAP Project Officer Louise Bannerman said that the action plan intends to implement a variety of strategies to raise awareness about disability issues. Ms Bannerman discussed new initiatives including a “celebratory week”, akin to Interfaith Week, as well as increased disability awareness programs for staff. “The first step is entrenching the fact every member of staff is liable to assist with equity and access,” she said.

The DAP is due to be adopted by the University in December.

Credit: Sadami Konchi at Urban Sketcher.org
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