Universities view themselves as places for ‘highly gifted’ members of society. Getting a degree is commonly viewed as the outcome of passing a series of academic obstacles, often many at once, under intense stress and scrutiny. Being able to pull off these hardships, fulfil them, and exit the other side unscathed is what a good student is expected to have done by the end of their time in university. Completion and acquisition of a degree is thereby an acknowledgement of their ability to survive this tough environment and emerge victorious on the other side. When a student does not meet these expectations set out by the university, it is seen as a defect of the student, rather than of the institution or system itself.
In Australia, universities are bound by the federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) and Disability Standards for Education 2005 (DSE) to ensure higher education is accessible to disabled students. Universities are legally required to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled students to remove barriers and make tertiary study as accessible as it is to their non-disabled peers. However, there is a lack of structural and institutional support afforded to ensure such adjustments and accommodations are implemented — much of the onus in ensuring access to these adjustments is placed on the shoulders of disabled students themselves.
Universities base their support of a student’s disability through student registration with the university’s accessibility and disability services. Within this context, registration is evidenced by a clinical diagnosis. This already poses many problems for students trying to access support. Getting a diagnosis is often an incredibly time-consuming and sometimes very expensive process, and is therefore not readily available to everyone who requires it.
Diagnoses, especially for chronic and mental illnesses, often also cannot be given instantaneously, as they require a person to be experiencing difficulty over a long period of time in order to qualify. Whilst there are valid reasons that the system of diagnosing a condition is set up this way, in a university context it leaves those struggling from an undiagnosed disability unsupported, often for years at a time.
If a student is unable to seek a formal diagnosis, either due to essential commitments, cost, lack of disability awareness or because of how taxing the process inherently is, then they are left to rely on simple extensions and the kindness of lecturers to attempt to support them throughout the semester. A formal diagnosis can unlock a world of potential adjustments and accommodations for a student, and can be the difference between passing or failing a course, a semester, or a whole degree.
After acquiring a diagnosis and registering for accessibility accommodations, the next step is a meeting between university support staff and the student affected to figure out what accommodations are needed. This meeting is important in understanding how a condition uniquely affects a student, however, in practice, this meeting can easily become one of the student trying to prove how their disability affects their ability to participate in university to the support worker. This often involves having to put on a persona that emphasises their disability and having to view past experiences through a medicalised lens of disability in order to justify the request for accommodations.
This process removes a large degree of agency from the student experiencing difficulty, and their whole journey to accessing support for their disability is mediated by others in a way that neglects their self-determination. They must receive a diagnosis from doctors, be validated in their struggles by university support staff, and receive adjustments ultimately decided on by the university itself.
Moreover, the effectiveness of adjustments available to disabled students depend heavily on what students’ needs are. Gemma Lucy Smart, Sessional Academic at the University of Sydney and SUPRA’s Disabilities Equity Officer, explained that the system is straightforward if students’ access needs are.
“For instance, if a student requires assistive technology and it’s standard then they will get access to that no issue and it’s wonderful.”
Theodore Tsolakis’ experience reflected this. As a blind Law student at USyd in his first year of a JD, Theodore is able to use his own assistive technology customised to his preferences for exams, with his academic plan (AP) requiring he receive readings as accessible Word documents and lecture slides as PowerPoint slides. He noted that these adjustments, as well as exam accommodations, were usually “very easy to arrange”.
More complex situations and needs require further support. However, a majority of adjustments available for students tend to be generic blanket provisions, and not always inherently geared toward the individual. For example, assessment extensions are a common adjustment available through APs. While this adjustment can be helpful if a student needs extra time to complete tasks due to health reasons or carer commitments, if a student has trouble initiating tasks, extra time doesn’t help them initiate tasks, and oftentimes it can result in putting off tasks for longer.
Hannah Rose, a third-year Arts student, noted that while Inclusion and Disability Services (IDS) can easily facilitate extension adjustments, other barriers, such as attendance requirements, are harder to accommodate.
APs can mention that a student’s attendance may be disrupted due to their disability, and that this should not be taken as a student showing disinterest or lack of commitment in the unit. Depending on the supporting medical documentation, the AP may advise university staff to ‘take this into consideration when reviewing their attendance record’ or to apply ‘relaxed attendance requirements’. However, this does not guarantee any directly actionable adjustments. An adjustment like this can easily be missed by staff – it only informs them of the issue, rather than enforcing any solution to this problem that has already been identified due to a student’s disability. Rose’s experience reflected this.
“[Attendance is] particularly tough with classes that [also] have a participation mark as part of the overall grade of the subject. Because when I can attend, sometimes being able to speak up in class can be physically as well as mentally challenging. So then the teacher would mark my participation poorly, assuming I wasn’t trying. I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain that my flare ups or exacerbations of my disability which make it difficult for me to attend class are unpredictable and I can’t plan them,” she explains.
As Rose’s experience highlights, disability adjustments are also often based on a static view of students’ conditions. If it is not static, students are referred to special considerations. However, there is no certainty that special considerations will be approved. As Robin Eames, PhD candidate and former casual staff member at USyd, explained “disability services and special considerations run on separate systems and aren’t built with fluctuating or episodic disabilities in mind.
“I’ve had a special cons application rejected because an emergency ward discharge report for a dislocated shoulder didn’t specify a period of debility.”
These complex overlays of multiple different systems also mean that information about a student’s disability and the accommodations required does not always find their way to the people who need to implement these accommodations.
Theodore also noted that he has had to often justify his requested adjustments in receiving hard copy exam papers in Braille.
“I’ve gotten the question “do you really need that?” on more than one occasion to which I’ve had to reply “yes, I do [for reasons depending on the particular unit], my AP says I’m entitled to it, and I’ve requested it far enough in advance that there should be adequate time to prepare it,” he said.
Inconsistent levels of staff understanding on disability adjustments is a problem endemic at the University. Smart notes that some staff view APs as optional, rather than a necessity for disabled students because they do not “fully understand their obligations under University policy and the DDA”. This lack of understanding speaks to a larger issue surrounding disability adjustments – the myth of a ‘disability con’.
The presumption that people are ‘faking’ disabilities to gain unfair advantages, ‘disability con’ can undermine the implementation of disability adjustments in APs, even after being approved. Just last year, an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney Medical School was removed from his position as a Unit of Study coordinator due to a dispute over disability exam adjustments, where he maintained that access to these adjustments granted to students meant that those students did not meet Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency’s (AHPRA) accreditation guidelines. Similar sentiments exist in other professional and prestigious degrees with attached accreditation boards, such as Law and Engineering, although it is likely such sentiments fly under the radar.
Smart notes that while an optional Disability Confidence Training is available to staff, it is often booked out. She highlighted that a new training module is currently in development for staff to ensure they are equipped with the necessary knowledge to navigate disability adjustment systems and understand their formal policy obligations. Hopefully, this helps curb ‘disability con’ conceptions.
Despite the many misconceptions about the needs of disabled students, the silver lining is that Disabilities Officers working at Inclusion and Disability Services genuinely care about their work and do their best to advocate for provisions to help disabled students. The problem lies not with them, but more so in the rigid structure that disability accommodations must follow, and the flawed administrative systems in place to deal with disability. Hopefully, by following the lead of frontline staff and respecting the self-determination of those with disability, we can work to eradicate some of the barriers that disabled students face in accessing accommodations that help them participate in university life.
Disabled students and those with long-term care responsibilities are advised to register with the University of Sydney’s Inclusion & Disability Services (IDS) to receive an Academic Plan.
- Obtain the requisite supporting documents before you apply. These documents will need to be attached when completing the application to register. Documents of this variety include medical certificate, diagnosis reports from a medical professional, statutory declaration and many more.
You will need to provide a supporting documentation form filled out by a medical/health professional. Please find the form in the link below:
- Complete an application to register through the link below:
- IDS will contact you to book a registration consultation with an IDS Disability Officer. The appointment will last for approximately one hour.