To The Best of My Ability
Tim Jackson and Rebecca Wong on navigating difference.
“I started uni 48 years ago. In those days there were no computers,” recalls Ron McCallum, who was Dean of the Sydney Law School from 2002-2007, and the first totally blind person to be appointed to a professorship by any university in Australasia.
“The only way I could survive was by having books and cases read to me by someone else. I studied in Canada at Queen’s University for two years. In the summer the students were away, and so [I gave] prisoners at one of the nearby gaols a tape recorder and they read for me.”
I interviewed Ron McCallum for this story. Almost half a century later, things have gotten better. Technology has improved, and the University now provides support services for disabled students. But as a fourth year Law student who is also blind, his experiences—the crippling shyness, the banal, everyday terror of not being able to find the toilet—still spoke to me more than they would most. People who are insensitive to my disability often just fail to realise its impact on the bits of life they take for granted. My experience of disability is of the ridiculous, the hilarious, the mundane. It’s heading to a shop three streets from uni, armed with my GPS and my foolish pride, and getting stuck on top of Footbridge, blundering around unable to find the stairs. It’s opening a reading to discover that a rubbish scan has presented the text with alternating lines from different paragraphs—Law readings are so convoluted that it took me a while to notice. While disabled students may no longer be reliant on the kindness of criminals, they still face additional hurdles at university.
The uni experience is one that just seems to happen for a lot of students. You walk from Redfern to Camperdown, then hop into a lecture and wait for some knowledge to be imparted upon you. After that you could smash some lunch down with mates, or pop over to the library to do some readings. Sure, it gets hard when assignments and exams come around, but it all seems a bit effortless, as though the system was made for you.
But walking to class is hard if you’re using crutches, and reading a PowerPoint slide is impossible if you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you. The question of being able to participate in class is a moot point if you are in the middle of a depressive episode and can’t get to class. In 2014, there were over 1900 students registered with Disability Services. Some students have conditions that make uni harder than it is for others, conditions exacerbated by the people who aren’t willing to accommodate them.
Lily is a third year Law student with generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, a major depressive disorder, ADHD, and Irlen Syndrome. These issues have a variety of effects, but one of the constants is the substantial effort required to input information, meaning that she gets tired in class: “so I do find that I’ve got to nap a lot, and I have to try and figure out my timetable so I’m able to have breaks between classes. I don’t really go to revues, I don’t go to the USU parties or whatever, I just sort of try and focus on what I’m there for, which is my studies, because that at the end of it is what will suffer most if my disabilities get out of hand.”
Nicola, a fourth year Law student, got arthritis in her second year of uni.
“I couldn’t get to class all the time, I was in pain. My back was the problem… the lifts were closed at Central Station on my platform and stairs were the worst possible thing. I spent a lot of time crying because I’d try to get to class and decide ‘no, I can’t do this’.”
In spite of the mobility challenges, Nicola was able to use crutches to get around uni as the medicine started to take.
Perhaps because crutches are quite common, people didn’t seem to notice Nicola’s disability, “but in a bad way”. In one incident, she was standing in front of a lift with ten people in it, and “nobody got out to give me their spot.” While Nicola was keen to emphasise that this was an isolated incident, and that she appreciated that people didn’t make a huge fuss over her, it is distressing to imagine an entire group of people ignoring someone whose needs so clearly outpaced their own.
Attitudinal problems often stem from the performative expectations of those with disabilities, who find themselves in the catch-22 situation of being either too visible or not visible enough.
“People whisper about me in lectures when I stare at my laptop or people think I’m an asshole because I’ve accidentally ignored them on Eastern Avenue because I haven’t been able to see them,” says Sam, who is blind. “There’s a lot of subliminal discrimination, because people are uncomfortable interacting with someone with a disability. I was a choirboy at St Andrews Cathedral, and there was an instance where I had to look very close to my sheet music. They wanted to kick me out of the choir because the congregation thought it looked strange. If you see someone doing things that are physically abnormal, don’t make comments, don’t laugh, don’t snigger, don’t whisper. Any comment you make can really, really hurt people.”
Students whose impairments aren’t outwardly visible spoke of another problem: a pervasive suspicion, shared by their peers and lecturers, that they’re cheating the system.
“[Students] often will ask questions, and when I just sort of try and put it off and say ‘oh, I’ve got really bad anxiety’ or whatever because I don’t want to get into the ins and outs, I think people are of the mindset that it’s like ‘well, everyone has anxiety, get over it’,” explains Lily.
“Because I look able-bodied, there is almost a presumption that I am trying to pull one over on the Law faculty,” says Mike, a JD candidate with viral arthritis that makes writing impossible. “Most students can type far faster than what I could ever write when my hands were working okay. They use these notes as the basis of study material.” Mike is routinely refused access to lecture slides prior to class, and is told that this would give him an advantage over other students. “This concept that we’re getting an unfair advantage is not only a fiction, it’s the opposite. All we’re trying to do is get a level playing field. At the end of the day, I would want nothing more than not to have to have disability provisions, and to be ‘normal’.”
One of the key challenges facing disabled students is that their conditions and experiences are totally disparate, which can be hard to accommodate in a system designed to streamline and centralise administrative tasks. A person with a mental illness has a hugely different set of needs to someone who is unable to walk around, or someone who is hard of hearing. And it goes deeper than that. Some people lack a support base to fall back on, which can make all the difference in the impersonal and bureaucratic purgatory of university admin. “If you’re really unwell mentally, how are you supposed to get to see somebody in medical services anyway?” says Lily. “Are they assuming you’re okay to drive, are they assuming you’ve got somebody in your life that you can say ‘uproot from whatever you’re doing, you need to take me to this’?”
The University administration lumbers in this highly nuanced environment. The University, recognising the need to ameliorate the issues facing disabled students, has a department, imaginatively titled ‘Disability Support’. Disability services aim to “offer a range of services and adjustments to minimise the impact of any disability.” The way that this manifests is in the provision of a “disability action plan”. While the specifics of implementation vary from faculty to faculty, the basic idea is that students can input their information into the system, set out the provisions that will be required throughout the semester, and apply for extensions and other special provisions through the disability support system instead of lecturers or the special consideration system.
People I spoke to had mixed responses to Disability Support. Anna, an Arts student with clinical depression and anxiety, had to visit her GP and psychologist three times to obtain the necessary paperwork to access disability services. Other students pointed to occasional privacy issues and a clunky website interface as the key problems plaguing the system.
“They just sort of treat your condition as something that’s static,” says Lily. “You’re not depressed all the time with major depressive disorder. You’re normal sometimes, and you’ll be fine, and then it will hit you like a tonne of bricks… They’re just sort of like, you have your adjustments for your disability, and those are your adjustments, and that’s it.”
On the other hand, the staff were praised as generally hardworking and empathetic for their attempts to promote student welfare and help out students who feel overwhelmed. Sam seemed to sum up the general sentiment: “They do the best they can inside of a bureaucratic system, and what they do is really valuable and really important.”
The University’s inability to cater to the diverse needs of its students is perhaps as much a function of centralisation as anything else. According to Sam, “tutors do the best they can… [but they] will see you once a week for maybe an hour, in a huge mass of students. In high school you have a more personal relationship with your educator.”
The SRC, which—contrary to popular belief—is more than just a launching pad for careerist hacks, attempts to fill in the gaps left by Disability Services. If a student feels that a lecturer has acted harshly or discriminated against them, they can talk things through with a caseworker. Lily finds the caseworkers to be particularly supportive. “They know that they’re working with vulnerable students, and that it’s really important to make sure those lines of communication are open and that people are supported.”
The more fundamental problem is that not enough students know these services exist, and often people don’t recognise their problems as fitting within the scope of a “disability”.
“It was only when I asked a law lecturer for lecture recordings that she told me arthritis would be classified as a disability,” Nicola remembers. “I didn’t know for about six months that I would have qualified for assistance.”
Students with serious issues often operate through the special considerations provisions, or through informal relationships with lecturers or coordinators. While better than nothing, these are unreliable ways to access provisions which are integral to providing equal access.
The lack of awareness means that students often fall through the cracks. They can find themselves outside the disability services, and at that point provision becomes much more arbitrary. As Mike points out, “it all depends on the person that you’re dealing with. They make all the difference.”
Anna attempted to get extensions on two essays while she waited for her disability services paperwork to be filled out by her doctor and her psychologist. She sent emails explaining her situation. The first lecturer responded positively, giving her an extension and from then on was “very understanding … from that point on he knew my name and was really nice to me. In mental health issues that’s really important.”
The second lecturer was not so understanding. “You will have to apply through the special considerations system” was the only response to repeated requests, even after intervention from a tutor. Even after Anna was entered into the Disability Services programme, the lecturer was deeply unhelpful, leading her to think she had not been granted an extension that she was entitled to and not replying to enquiries from Disability Services. “These kind of things made my situation a lot worse. It was a lack of understanding that led to a lot of stress.” There were no noticeable trends with regards to which faculty lecturers were more or less accepting; there is no way of knowing when you enter into a subject if that lecturer is going to be helpful or not.
Ungenerous attitudes can perhaps be attributed to the misinformation and stigma surrounding disability.
“Mental health is seen as a thing that is meant to be dealt with privately,” says Anna.
Lily wants people to understand that “ADD doesn’t mean you’re a naughty kid, it doesn’t mean you’re a stupid kid. You can still function in society as anybody else does, if certain adjustments are made and if people are aware of it, and if you work really hard as well. I’m really interested in destigmatising mental illness, because I think that’s something that with encouragement and with a bit more of a dialogue, people will be able to come to terms with, and seek help, and their lives can be so much better.”
One view shared by many was the importance of education as a key element in professional progression for the disabled. To Ron McCallum, “most clerical occupations were not open to blind people, [meaning] you either did menial work or you plumbed for one of the professions.” Similarly, Sam “could never be a barista. I could never work behind a till”. Education becomes an opportunity to gain a qualification, and show employers that “we can do it too”.
In its Disability Awareness Training Manual, the University acknowledges that it has a responsibility to ‘evaluate students on their abilities not their disabilities’. And the disabled students we interviewed emphasised that the provisions they accessed weren’t there to give them a leg up, but to even out the playing field. That they hoped to be treated with respect, without being otherised. The fundamental challenge is figuring out where and how to draw the line, how to accommodate and not patronise. Don’t call me an inspiration, just show me to the bloody toilet.