Students Living with a Disability are Falling Behind at University Due to Lack of Accessible, Flexible Study Options

By Alicia Steele and Sarah Richards
Posted November 23, 2023

In her first week this semester, Sophy Barlow couldn’t access two out of three of her university classes.

Key points:
Students with disability say it isn’t always possible to attend classes due to a lack of accessibility
Chancellor Graeme Innes said universities need to do more to make higher education more accessible
Flexible learning, such as online classes, can benefit all students, not just those with a disability
The 21-year-old University of Queensland (UQ) student lives with muscular dystrophy and uses an electric wheelchair.

For two lessons that week, the ramp to the room was closed off, and there was no way for Ms Barlow to get into the room – so she missed class.

She said the experience was “extremely frustrating” and “quite saddening”.

Ms Barlow said she still had problems on campus, and often felt like she was expected to solve them herself.

“I just want to be a student,” she said.

“I just want to show up, go to my classes, and try and do well.”

A UQ spokesperson said students should be told about maintenance or upgrades that impact campus access, and adjustments should be made to ensure “students do not miss out”.

“In this instance, we acknowledge this process may not have occurred as it should have, and we apologise for this oversight,” the spokesperson said.

UQ said it “acknowledges” parts of the campuses are “challenging” for people with disability and said it has an ongoing program of works to improve.

Sian Chadfield, a student representative for the UQ Union Disability Collective, said students with disabilities encountered many barriers at university.

“Sometimes people can do that job at the end of the degree, but it ends up being the degree itself which is inaccessible,” she said.

But Ms Chadfield said the issues were not isolated to just one university.

‘Kills your spirit’

Adam Whitehead is studying a double degree at the University of Melbourne.

The 31-year-old, who has low vision, said when he enrolled, the university agreed to format the course content so it could be read out loud by a screen reader.

But this formatting would take weeks, and Mr Whitehead said “it became more and more difficult” to keep up with his classes.

University of Melbourne did not answer the ABC’s questions about why a student would receive accessible content weeks later, or about the process of providing students formatted content.

A spokesperson said the university was currently reviewing its support services for students with a disability.

“The university is prioritising disability inclusion and improving accessibility and inclusivity for people with disability,” a spokesperson said.

Mr Whitehead said the access barriers he faced “kind of kills your spirit a little bit after a while”.

“You just get more and more frustrated and get further and further behind with classes.”

Mr Whitehead said it built up to a point where he felt he had no choice but to drop some subjects.

“I love what I’m doing in university and the content, but the actual stuff that I can’t do has made it very difficult,” he said.

“We have every right to be here. We’ve done what everyone else did to get here, and we just want to have the same opportunities.”

He said being part of a community of students with a disability had helped.

“We’ve been able to really help each other out and at least let each other know that they’re not the only one going through stuff,” he said.

Offer more flexibility

Under Australian law, people with disabilities have the right to the same educational opportunities as everyone else.

But University of Central Queensland chancellor Graeme Innes – who is also a former disability discrimination commissioner – said there was more the Australian education system could do to meet those requirements.

“It doesn’t mean that universities aren’t making efforts to make the sector accessible, they certainly are, but I think they could go further,” Mr Innes said.

“I think one of the key things for getting it right is listening to the voice of people with disabilities.”

Universities need to offer students more flexibility, Ms Chadfield said.

“Not everyone is able to attend class in-person all the time for reasons due to disability or chronic illness,” she said.

“In the past, I know it’s been argued that we don’t have the technology, we’re not there yet. But we can’t really say that anymore.”

Mr Innes said flexible learning – like the option to attend classes online – benefited all students, not just those with a disability.

“What we want to do in a learning environment is make it as effective as possible for the person learning,” he said.

“If the person learns more effectively by learning online, then why wouldn’t we want to maintain that and give the person the best chance to complete their degree?”

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said universities took their responsibility under the Disability Discrimination Act seriously.

“Students living with disabilities have the right to inclusive and accessible learning options that best suit them,” she said.

“Universities have plans in place to cater to student needs, often working closely with accessibility teams which are trained to provide advice and support to ensure students fully participate in their chosen field of study.”

Employment prospects

Because of her disability, there are lots of jobs Ms Barlow can’t do – and she says that’s why having access to higher education is so important.

“Without higher education, my employability prospects are limited,” she said.

She wants tertiary institutions to take a “more proactive approach” to accessibility.

Ms Barlow said, although many staff recognised there were problems and wanted to fix them, they didn’t know how.

“If we work together, we can make a truly accessible campus and university,” she said.

The ABC is partnering with International Day of People with Disability to recognise the contributions and achievements of the 4.4 million Australians with disability.

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