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Words by Adele Brookes

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, just under one-fifth of Australians have a disability. That’s 18.5 per cent, or 4.2 million Australians.

If one in five Australians have a disability, while you are reading this, sitting in a lecture of 200, think about the facts. According to statistics, there would be approximately 40 amongst them who identify with a disability. Even when you’re just basking in the sun on South Lawn on one of those long lunch Tuesdays, there may be many with a disability around you, some of them hidden from view.

Many disabilities are ‘invisible’ or hidden from the naked eye. They aren’t always highlighted by a wheelchair or an accompanying guide dog. Head injuries resulting in impairment, learning difficulties, deafness, and mental illness are all debilitating conditions that are not recognised simply at face value.

Being a minority group within the university is not correspondent to a lack of places to turn. The main avenue for students with a disability at the University of Melbourne to seek assistance is the Disability Liaison Unit (DLU). Located on the ground floor of the Baldwin Spencer Building, it aims to provide accommodations for students for a range of reasons.

The university-run DLU aims “to lead and enable a transformative student experience,” according to its website. It tries to ensure that students can reach their full potential without a disability hindering them. It also allows students to access various personalised services, which work alongside them to enable and encourage academic achievement.

These services include assistive technology (such as voice-to-text software), alternative exam arrangements, and academic support workers (who may take notes during a lecture or be a scribe for written exams). The unit mainly deals with the educational needs of its clients.

Registration is on a voluntary basis and there is no fee charged for the assistance provided. After approaching the unit and satisfying the requirements of entry, a staff member is assigned to each student. The DLU works alongside subject teachers to assist with any university-related difficulties.

Manager of the DLU, David Haynes, cringes at the thought of students left disadvantaged from their own nerves about discussing their disabilities.

“[Disability support] is an expectation and it’s an entitlement for every student, so it’s a very easy process to get the accommodations,” he says. “We’re really focused on privacy and confidentiality.”

According to Mr Haynes, the Disability Discrimination Amendment (Education Standards) Act 2005 instructs the DLU on what services it can provide. As long as the academic integrity of the course is not compromised by the accommodations, students with a disability have the right to expect the university to make adjustments so they can participate.

“People can have the same disability, but be affected differently. And people’s family circumstances or social circumstances can have an impact on how the condition impacts them,” he says. “Essentially, what we’re obliged to do as an institution is to speak to the students concerned individually, about what their circumstances are.”

Importantly, the DLU aims to guarantee that those with disabilities are not impeded in tertiary life.

“The role of the Disability Liaison at the university is to coordinate [accommodations], and to make certain that students’ experience in the academic side of time at the university is positive and as good as it can be, so they’re not disadvantaged by a disability or their health circumstances,” Mr Haynes reinforces.

James Woodcock is a post-doctoral mechanical engineering student at the university, and identifies with a disability. After a rugby game at school went horribly wrong, Mr Woodcock seriously damaged his spine. He is now a fulltime wheelchair user and a quadriplegic, with no use of his legs and only partial use of his arms.

He returned to his schooling the following year and upon finishing secondary school, he was admitted to a double degree in Chemical Engineering and Science at the University of Melbourne. Dr Woodcock went onto compete his Honours in Mathematics and, following that, a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and Mathematics. He is currently undertaking post-doctoral research, and while happy with the university’s support overall, he believes one issue has been overlooked: accessibility

“For me, the DLU had two roles. These were providing a lab assistant in prac classes, and ensuring the accessibility of lecture theatres and other venues.”

“Lab assistants were provided for classes that have a laboratory component, so that the student will direct the lab assistant, telling them how to conduct the experiment … The DLU provided lab assistants that had previously done the subject; this was good because it meant that they would understand the instructions you give,” he says.

According to Dr Woodcock, however, accessibility within the university is another matter entirely.

“Ultimately, the problem that so much of the uni remains inaccessible or semi accessible- by which I mean that it’s technically possible to access them, but it’s very impractical. The accessibility of the lecture theatres is not something the DLU should have to deal with … I believe the University should have come up with an accessibility plan decades ago,” he says.

On a positive note, as a disabled student Dr Woodcock does not feel underrepresented. Still, he worries that the aforementioned inaccessibility could discourage potential students who require modified access avenues from attending university.

Dr Woodcock believes that if entering a lecture theatre was a more difficult task than the actual challenges of a subject, many students would give up and potentially drop out. Alternatively, he speculates that some would even choose subjects easy to access but not necessarily in their interest spectrum, in order to work around their needs.

“Disabled students are often the ones who need university educations the most,” he says. “Many will be incapable of doing any jobs requiring manual work, and will therefore require more education than others to be able to find useful employment.”

Dr Woodcock deduces that it may even be a self-perpetuating problem. “I suspect those in charge aren’t aware of how far behind the university is in this, as even some of the newest buildings are poorly designed for accessibility … If not many students in wheelchairs choose to go to university because of accessibility issues, they could conclude that since there are few students in wheelchairs, accessibility is a minor issue,” he says.

He goes on to state that he believes that the timetabling system seems to be drawn up without responding to the needs of these students. If the prescribed lecture theatre is not accessible, the DLU will alert the lecturer, who must find another.

“Finding a free and accessible venue after the timetables have been finalised can be difficult … In a couple of cases in which I had a tutorial in an inaccessible room, the lecturers opted to make time to go through the tutorial questions in their office, rather than try to find a new venue. This indicates how difficult it must be for them to find accessible venues,” he says.

In the 2008-2011 University of Melbourne Disability Action Plan, one of the key targets was to make 99% of buildings accessible by 2011. The DLU-compiled access map acknowledges that while in the past accessibility was poor due to some buildings ages, the university has made significant advances to allow access across campus. And, despite the factsheet for students with mobility difficulties maintaining all the main classrooms and theatre are accessible, there are still older buildings that are not.

If students requiring modified entrances, such as Dr Woodcock, are discontent with the University’s overall accessibility, surely there is an underlying issue. No doubt change takes time, but those with disabilities require access now.

Dr Woodcock admits accessibility has improved a great deal since he began his studies.

In 2010, The Council of Australian Governments unveiled The National Disability Strategy 2010-2020 (NDS). This initiative sets out a national ten-year plan to improve the lives of those with disabilities. Of the six policies unveiled, number five specifically targets learning and skills.

The strategy states that targeted support is required to assist those disadvantaged in education as a result of their impairment. While this is already readily available, as the world evolves, so does the support required. This evolution ensures that in a first world country like Australia, education can continue well into adulthood for all.

According to the NDS, lower levels of participation in education, training and employment has in the past run hand in hand with disabilities. Moreover, there still exists a notable gap between those with a disability and those without in all forms of qualification participation and attainment. Year 12 and beyond is of particular concern.

Clearly, this solidifies the need for 100 per cent accessibility for those who are mobility impaired at the University of Melbourne. Not only ensuring all students are able to fully participate in university life, increased accessibility will further highlight the integral need for the Liaison Unit to ensure that all students on campus have equality in the learning domain.

Until recently, the Disability Liaison Unit was the main and only avenue for those with disabilities to seek support. Mr Haynes estimates about 1000 students have registered with the DLU over the life of their study. In the past, between 300 and 400 have registered each year. However, at the September 2013 Student Union general meeting, a bill was passed to formulate a Union-run Disability Department. Jess Evans and Sarina Murray were selected as the inaugural disability officers.

Jess Evans, a full time wheelchair user and Arts student, felt underrepresented in the cultural aspect of university life.

“I wanted to establish the Disabilities Department firstly because I noticed that there was a department for several other marginalised groups, but not ones for students with disabilities,” she says. “[The DLU] has historically not been very good at providing opportunities for students to disabilities to socialise and network with each other.”

And Mr Haynes doesn’t disagree.

“I think that’s a legitimate one,” he admits. “It’s a difficult area because you don’t actually want to say, ‘Let’s get a table of people together in a group because they’ll be very supportive to each other.’ That’s discriminatory, and that’s an inappropriate way of dealing with it.”

“We don’t want to sort of implement something that turns out to be offensive, or not terribly interesting or useful, or doesn’t meet the real need,” he says.

Ms Evans has been happy with the DLU’s backing for the new department.

“I’ve been encouraged by the level of support for the department and the fact that the DLU seem keen to collaborate with us and to share concerns that they have about issues facing students with disabilities currently.”

Fellow disability officer Sarina Murray has found that people don’t open up about their issues during the daylight hours, but instead over a few drinks. “Only half the people who need help for mental illnesses ever seek it, and risk factors like moving out of home, social and financial pressures and expectations of yourself compared to others are really exacerbated in an environment like university,” she said. “Once I was open about my issues … people started sharing their own stories. But this usually happened late at night, at parties or at the pub, once people were drinking.”

“I think the department can offer students a more sober way to confide their problems and hear from others. Disability Collective will have lunch vouchers and a safe place to make friends, network, talk about problems and ideas for actions the department can take,” she says.

Indeed, the focus on the social aspect of university is a defining characteristic of the new department. Amongst other things, the officers pledge to provide social and community building for students with disabilities, refer students onto the appropriate support mediums, coordinate disability campaigns, and raise awareness of the issues facing disabled students on campus.

In theory, the options the university offers for disabled students in their academic and cultural lives seem faultless. Students with a disability have a flurry of opportunities in their grasp to achieve success in their studies and to break from the isolation that comes with living with a disability. Problems that still exist are in knowledge and admittance.

Students, especially ones enrolling for the first time in 2014, are arguably most at need of support. New students already have the stress of navigating a huge, unknown campus. Add on issues with accessibility, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure of the services provided, or even just unaware of where to ask for help. More has to be done to ensure the services provided are recognized and promoted.

The other major issue is seeking help. Making oneself known to the DLU, and participating in activities run by the new Disability Department, is completely voluntary. Upon enrolling, it is entirely at the decision of the student to request assistance. Whether it be the fear of disclosure for privacy reasons, or being ashamed of a non-existent stigma, coming forward can only enable students to reach their full potential at university.

If anything, Ms Murray wishes she had asked for help sooner.

“There’s no such thing as ‘not disabled enough,’ if it’s impacting on your ability to do well at university,” she says. “I would encourage all students with a visible or non-visible disability to register with the Disability Liaison Unit … Information about the DLU, counselling and other services like Financial Aid, need to be at the front of students’ minds throughout their degree.”

Similarly, Mr Haynes constantly comes across students who regret not registering with the DLU, and that’s where the urgency lies.

“We still see students who say ‘I wish you were here two years ago’ or ‘I wish I knew these types of accommodations could’ve been made for me last year. If there’s a problem, talk to someone about it,” Mr Haynes urges. “You’d curse yourself having missed out on accommodations that were appropriate to you that would’ve made your life so much better, because you didn’t want to disclose.”

Still, the issue is bigger than merely on-campus assistance. While there is a minority attending university, more has to be done during primary and secondary education if disabled students are to be on par with non-disabled students when it comes to tertiary admissions. Once at a tertiary level, the job continues. The university must tidy up some aspects of accessibility and maintain support at the highest level, if it wishes to host some of our most promising students.

Disability is a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to impede on dreams of tertiary education and contributing to society. In 2014, the DLU and the Disability Department mean support avenues are bigger than ever and address even more needs. So, why wallow about missed opportunities later in life? A simple consultation could give you the immediate help you need to succeed. Promisingly, the University of Melbourne seems to be heading in the right direction.

The University of Melbourne encourages all students with disabilities to register with the Disability Liaison Unit. The UMSU Disability Department’s Collective will run every Monday during the semester. 1pm on Level 3 of Union House.