3 December is International Day of People with Disability, and in 2022 we are encouraged to challenge the way we think about disability and grow a more inclusive Australia. As your Disability Equity Officers, we celebrate the achievements of disabled students at Usyd. We celebrate those who have fought for equitable access and participation in higher education and society more broadly.
SUPRA has endorsed a report into Disability and Higher Education in Australia, which steps out some of the many barriers faced by students with a disability at universities across Australia.
Note: throughout this article the terms ‘disabled people’ and ‘people with disability’ will be used interchangeably. We also recognise that some communities such as the Deaf community prefer not to use the language of Disability at all, but are subject to the same or similar challenges as those who do. We recognise that the language used in this domain varies for important reasons, and it is always important to ask an individual what their preference is.
What is disability?
A disability is any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).
The definition of disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 is broad. It includes physical, intellectual, psychiatric, sensory, neurological and learning disabilities.
Disability can be permanent or temporary, visible or invisible. And in the context of higher education it’s important to appreciate that having a disability does not mean one is less suited to be a university student, it just means that one might need accommodations and support to achieve academically.
Why is it important to have laws to protect disabled students?
Persons with disabilities, and disabled students in particular, often find that they need adjustments that ensure they are able to participate and perform without their disability being a barrier to their performance.
It is necessary for service-providers to accommodate for a person with a disability to be able to take part without being unfairly disadvantaged.
Laws ensure that service-providers offer the reasonable accommodations needed to be inclusive. In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education 2005 protect disabled students’ rights to an inclusive environment while studying at university.
Is the system good enough?
Although Australia’s compliance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is improving, there are still several barriers under Australian law which prevent disabled students from advocating for and protecting their equal education rights.
In Sklavos v Australasian College of Dermatologists, the Court held that disabled students should bear the burden of proof that there is a ‘causal link’ between their disabilities and the duty-holder’s refusal to provide a reasonable adjustment. This difficult burden of proof is not only contrary to the recommendation of CRPD (by shifting the positive obligation from the duty-holder to the disabled students), but also makes it impractical for disabled students to protect their equal education rights. Unfortunately, there is still no substantive legislative reform to relieve the burden. This creates a barrier where those institutions who fail to uphold their duties to accommodate individuals with disabilities are not held accountable for their failure to act.
As a consequence of this, the systems and services put in place for people with disabilities in Australia are not effective enough, with statistics suggesting 1 in 6 disabled Australians experience disability discrimination in a given calendar year. There are little to no consequences for universities who do not comply with disability-related legislation. Disabled academics and especially disabled students across Australia remain vulnerable to discrimination without equitable access to legal redress.
What is SUPRA doing to help?
This year SUPRA’s Disability Officers have worked with a range of other student organisations to raise awareness around the systemic flaws regarding disability in higher education, and how the legislation-makers can help improve this situation. As noted above, in 2022 SUPRA endorsed the Disability & Higher Education Joint Position Statement & Research Report which states:
‘Recognising the systemic neglect experienced by disabled students and disabled staff (including disabled academics), we call for strong action by the higher education sector – including from universities and regulatory bodies such as the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) and the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) – to promote equal access to education and non-discrimination for people with disabilities.’
SUPRA aims to help all students through our casework and legal services, including those with disabilities requiring adjustments. If you need advice or help navigating what support is available, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team of caseworkers! Contact us for help.
We also have a disability advocacy service through our disability officers, which helps advocate and raise awareness for disabled students’ needs and rights across campus! We also hold a range of events throughout the academic year to gather and support the network of students with disabilities on campus. Look out for more news about this and upcoming events for welcome week on our Facebook page, as well as SUPRA’s social media and Grad Post!
Contact the disability officers:firstname.lastname@example.org
What other support is available on campus?
University Health Service:
This service offers experienced general practitioner and emergency medical care services. For more information and to book an appointment visit the University Health Service page.
Inclusion and Disability Services:
This service offers a range of services and adjustments to help you achieve your academic goals and minimise the impact a disability can have on your experience at university. For more information or to request support go to the Disability Support page.
The Student Liaison Officers are specialist staff members who can provide trauma-informed case management and support to students who have experienced sexual misconduct (including sexual assault and harassment), bullying and harassment, modern slavery and domestic/family violence. For more information or to seek support visit the Safer Communities page.
In case of crisis:
If you’re in Australia, and experiencing crisis after business hours, you can contact the University After hours wellbeing line: call 1300 474 065 or text 0488 884 429.
Within Australia, these services also offer mental health support: