Those who start behind

We have a long way to go until we reach a the point where those who start behind don’t have to stay there.

Art: Jocelin Chan

Most students will spend their first few days at university finding the right rooms, coordinating last minute timetable changes and searching Facebook groups for second-hand textbooks. I will also do these things, but not for the same reasons as most.

Figuring out the buildings is the first thing I do. You see, walking too much is hard for me. Some days too much means one-hundred metres. Knowing the building is important because if I arrive and the lift is out of order, I need to know if there is another way up or if it’s time to give up and go home.

Which brings me to textbooks. I miss a lot of class. Not always because the lifts seem to break down more than they work. Sometimes it’s fatigue. Sometimes it isn’t safe for me to be at university. Textbooks help me catch up.Art: Jocelin Chan

And timetable changes. Everyone hates 8am lectures. If I went to them, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed the next day.

And so all these tasks are a little bit more important. We already start behind.

For Ella*, who has dyslexia, studying is physically painful.

“I spend hours with headaches caused by just doing my basic readings and it takes me three times as long to do them,” she explains.

“If I were studying full time, I wouldn’t have the physical hours in the week to be able to do my readings.”

I also have this problem. Severe fatigue limits me to three hours of study a day, and that’s on days that I don’t have to go to campus. Just going to class is often more than my energy levels allow. When I get home I am so tired that I can’t do anything that requires processing more than one sensory input.

The ways we start behind are endless and the university fails to bridge the gap. Staff are often dismissive and misunderstanding about the needs of students with disabilities.

For Chris* the request was simple: “I just needed it [a reader] to be printed on coloured paper. I ran the application through disability services. They in fact did not process that application. They contacted the printers. The printers said that they didn’t carry that particular paper and instead of asking me if there was an alternate or if the printers had an alternative they messaged me back and said it couldn’t be done.”

In some cases, Disability Services genuinely aren’t able to accommodate the request. But in this case, the student took it upon themselves to visit the same printers that Disability Services had contacted and within half and hour had organised the necessary adjustments. After three weeks of fighting with disability services.

Jumping through university hoops is harder when there are times I physically cannot jump, or even walk. And the problems don’t end with Disability Services’ red-tape.

It isn’t just systems and processes that need changing to improve the university experience, it’s the culture and attitudes of everyone from the Executives, to the teaching staff, to the students.

A Disability Services manager, who did not want to be named, counts disability awareness training for academic staff as one of the most important features of the University’s Disability Action Plan. But this training isn’t compulsory, and until it is there will be staff that continue to labour under common misconceptions.

Some of these misapprehensions are listed in the Disability Awareness Training Manual, which is readily available on the University’s website. The first is one of the most prevalent and harmful myths for students living with disability:

Myth — Equal opportunity means that everyone should be treated the same – so students with disability are not entitled to support services.

Truth — Equal opportunity means all people should be treated in a way that enables them to achieve their potential. Support services assist students with such tasks as reading and processing information, conducting library research, preparing assignments, photocopying and performing manual procedures.

Or to put it another way:

Lecturer — If you have access to lecture recordings and other students don’t that would give you an unfair advantage.

Me — Every student has the right to attend lectures for classes they are registered for. If I can’t access that right because I am unable to get out of bed, then I have the right to access lecturers some other way.Art: Jocelin Chan

“I feel like a lot of it comes down to misunderstanding,” says another student. “I won’t read aloud in class because my reading is so disjointed, but if I’m just talking you wouldn’t know that reading can be very hard for me because I can’t necessarily see the words in the right order.”

Misunderstanding is another common frustration for many students living with a disability. “When I go into class, I make sure to have done readings beforehand so I am able to participate without my hardship being obvious. And often that means if I explain to anyone, ‘well I have a provision, I’ve got an extension’ there’s kind of always a sigh of ‘oh you’re so lucky’ or ‘oh man I wish I had that’.”

When asked what they would want the university community to know about them and their disability, one interviewee said they wanted peers to realise “I shouldn’t be made to feel like I’m a bad student or faking it if I don’t get things done. I have this thing, I have an extension for a reason, it’s not because I’m using that to go be frivolous.”

The Disability Action Plan states: “At the University of Sydney we pride ourselves on our diverse student population…The disability action plan reflects our focus on becoming a world leader in the social and economic participation of people with disability.”

We have a long way to go before we reach the point where those who start behind don’t have to stay there.

*Names have been changed.