Disability: Let’s adjust learning design now for everyone

By Tim Pitman, Matt Brett and Katie Ellis

Bob Dylan’s classic Subterranean Homesick Blues goes:  “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Anyone teaching or working in higher education knows the number of students with disabilities is growing. The number and proportion of students disclosing disability has grown every year since data was first reported nationally in 1996.

The surge in the number of students disclosing their disabilities is the result of many influences. Reporting of disability status in student systems is on the rise for reasons including improved processes and a greater willingness of students to disclose. We also know that both incidences and reporting of some forms of disability – notably mental health conditions – are on the increase in broader society.

Are students with disabilities overrepresented in higher education?

The Universities Accord discussion paper presented data showing students with disabilities are now overrepresented in higher education. The reality is more complex and goes to the heart of how students with disability are defined and counted in higher education. 

We recently explored this in our article ‘Three decades of misrecognition: Defining people with disability in Australian higher education policy”. We want to use this blog to highlight opportunities to improve the learning environment and graduate outcomes for university students with disability.

First-year retention and success rates, and degree-completion rates for students with disabilities, remain well below those of other students. Almost two out of every three students complete their degree within six years, compared to around one out of every two students with disability.

Recognition-redistribution paradox

Universities are aware of this and have worked for many years to provide support to these students. But one unintended consequence of their efforts has been the creation of what has elsewhere been called the ‘recognition-redistribution’ paradox. In the context of disability, recognition means positively highlighting, or celebrating, what it means to be disabled. Redistribution, on the other hand, means acknowledging the disadvantage experienced by persons with disabilities when they encounter social and structural barriers, or even outright discrimination.

Consequently, this leads universities simultaneously saying to students with disabilities “we don’t define you by your disability” and “we can offer you support – but only if we define you by your disability”.

One reason for this paradox is, perversely, located in an important key protection for persons with disability that is found in both the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and the Disability Standards for Education (2005). This is the notion of the ‘reasonable adjustment’.

What is a reasonable adjustment?

A reasonable adjustment is an action taken by an institution to ensure that a student with disability can participate in education free from direct or indirect discrimination. 

These adjustments may include extra exam time, modifying the curriculum or presenting information in different formats. But to gain access to a reasonable adjustment, the student must a) identify as disabled, b) acknowledge a ‘deficiency’ and c) have their disability medicalised by a health professional.

One recommendation arising from the recent Disability Royal Commission is to remove the word “reasonable” from reasonable adjustment. This would be an important step, as it would effectively reverse the burden of proof from the student to the institution.Yet the paradox would remain. In addition, legal entitlement to a reasonable adjustment is restricted. Students who do not identify with disability, but who need some form of flexibility for health-related reasons, are thus ‘disabled’ by institutional processes if they request or are granted a reasonable adjustment.

In the future, support provision for students with disabilities will be thrust into the spotlight, for several reasons. As discussed above, general awareness around disability cultures is improving and with it, improved commitments to affirming the rights of persons with disabilities.

Universities must improve their outreach

Yet if we want higher education to achieve the ambitious growth targets proposed in the recent Australian Universities Accord Interim Report, universities will need to improve their outreach and engagement with groups of students historically under-represented in higher education. 

This includes students with disabilities.

How universities support these students need to shift – dramatically. It cannot put greater pressure on universities’ disability support offices.

A universal design for learning

The fundamental approach to disability support needs to move from the primacy of the reasonable adjustment to inaccessible curriculum to principles of universal design for learning (UDL) that reduces the need for adjustments by design.

UDL is an approach to teaching and learning that uses a variety of methods and approaches to teaching to remove unnecessary barriers to learning. Rather than just offering one way of students engaging with the curriculum, and demonstrating their understanding, UDL is about flexibility and adjustment to suit a variety of learners.

System wide implementation of UDL will reduce the burden on students disclosing and substantiating their disability to be eligible for negotiated changes to inaccessible curriculum.

This is a key issue at the heart of our recent paper where we argue current reporting mechanisms may not be fit for purpose. Personal information such as disability status should only be collected if there is a direct benefit to the student and/or a wider benefit in terms of institutional understanding and support for these students.

Ultimately, UDL challenges a university to reconsider almost every aspect of their operation, including:

·         Attitudes of all staff towards students with disabilities.

·         The development and promotion of polices to support students with disabilities.

·         Creation of a fully inclusive physical/built environment.

·         How information – both academic and non-academic – is communicated within the institution.

·         What software and hardware technologies are provided for students, and what types brought by students can be supported.

·         Wider social inclusion, including extra-curricular activities.

This is not to say that systemic adoption of UDL will completely replace the use of reasonable adjustments. It cannot fully resolve the recognition-redistribution paradox. 

But it can significantly improve the quality of the educational experience for literally thousands of students, both with and without disability.

From left to right: Tim Pitman is an associate professor at Curtin University, researching higher education policy and widening access and participation for groups of students historically under-represented in higher education, including those from low-socio economic backgrounds, Indigenous persons, people with disability, people from non-English speaking backgrounds and people from regional and remote parts of Australia. Matt Brett is Director of Academic Governance and Standards at Deakin University where he has oversight for academic governance, academic policy, course approvals, equity reporting, institutional research and surveys, quality assurance, and quality reviews. He is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA)  and began his career in higher education as a sign language interpreter. He has a sustained and multi-dimensional impact on student equity.  Katie Ellis is a professor and director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University  where she conducts disability led research into socially just digital futures. She also co-chairs Universities Enable.

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