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Supporting disability within universities

Supporting disability within universities

Living with disability can lead to many forms of intentional and accidental exclusion in everyday life, and this is no different when setting foot on a university campus. What many of us take for granted could end up being a barrier to accessibility for people who have a physical or intellectual disability. Dedicated disability support services focus on removing these hurdles by fostering equal participation among all university students and staff, while simultaneously raising awareness of the experiences faced on a daily basis.  

To commemorate this year’s International Day of People with Disability (IDPwD), we’ve explored the different support services available to tertiary students and staff who live with disability. In line with IDPwD’s 2018 theme of ‘empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality’, let’s look at how universities can and have increased awareness, understanding and acceptance of people who live with both visible and invisible disabilities. 

Dedicated action plans

Many universities have established their own action plans that aim to bridge gaps in inclusivity among students and staff members with disability. These plans, which correlate with Australia’s National Disability Strategy 2010-2020, seek to remove accessibility and participation barriers so all university members feel that they can equally engage with every aspect of campus life. The pledges of these action plans are enshrined in university guidelines, such as diversity, equal opportunity and medical policies, to ensure that students and staff are afforded support when it is needed. Victoria University (VU) and University of Western Australia (UWA) are just some of the many institutions that have established strategies for equality among students and staff living with disability. VU aims to facilitate regular contact between Accessibility Liaison Officers and those who require support as part of their Accessibility Action Plan, while UWA created the Disability Access and Inclusion Action Plan to illustrate their ongoing commitment to equality and diversity throughout the university. 

Assistive technology services

Having access to helpful learning tools can be crucial for students and staff who live with disability. When universities provide software and computers that are tailored to those with impairments, it enhances the inclusion of students who may struggle to learn effectively through generic technology. Griffith University has created eight assistive technology labs across their campuses, offering students and staff access to braille embossers, magnification resources and screen enlarging, word processing and voice recognition software. Reaching W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 compliance has been an aim of Federation University as they have sought to make their website user-friendly for everyone. Incorporating accessibility features such as ‘skip to content’ links and text resizing capabilities not only increases ease of use, but also raises awareness of the seemingly innocuous accessibility barriers faced by those living with disability. Services such as Swinburne University’s AccessAbility links students with note-taking software, Auslan interpreters, alternative formatting systems and other forms of assistive technology to support their university studies.  

Disability awareness events

Campaigns and representation programs are great ways to promote inclusivity and diversity around campus. Many institutions run events that specifically address disability in universities, aiming to reach out to those living with disability while also educating the wider student and staff body. University of New South Wales (UNSW)’s Accessibility Ambassadors service puts students in contact with trained representatives who can not only assist with campus navigation, but also provide support when participating in social events. Disability Inclusion Week, an annual celebration held by University of Sydney, aims to bring students, staff and the wider community together to raise awareness of disability in tertiary settings. Through events such as Q&A sessions, photo exhibitions, discussion panels and Auslan training, this program aims to facilitate increased understanding and acceptance of university members who live with disability. 

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