Tim Pitman

Disability: Let’s adjust learning design now for everyone

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.

Best pathway to university for disadvantaged students: latest research findings

There are many pathways to higher education these days. I am a member of a national research team that has been examining how well pathways work for disadvantaged students.

In particular we are looking at what are called ‘enabling programs’. These are programs that prepare people for university study, who would otherwise be denied the opportunity to participate.

We looked at how enabling programs compared to the pathway to university through Vocational Education and Training (VET) for disadvantaged students.

We have not yet finished our research, but what we have discovered already has implications for universities, governments and people from disadvantaged backgrounds who aspire to a university education.

What is an ‘enabling program’?

We identified forty-eight enabling programs across twenty-seven universities, ranging in length from four weeks to as long as eighteen months, longer if taken part-time.

These programs shared the following broad characteristics:

  • They were expressly for the purpose of preparing (that is, enabling) a student to undertake a higher education degree course;
  • They were free for domestic students, however some were also provided to other types of students (for example, international students) at a charge;
  • Most had no or minimal pre-requisites for entry, in terms of academic capability or past academic performance.

Enabling programs are generally offered at minimal cost to students because the Australian Government funds them. The relatively low cost is a significant attraction for disadvantaged students.

Enabling programs are not exclusive to, but enrol disproportionately from, groups of disadvantaged students. This is in line with their fundamental aim.

Disadvantaged students are defined by the Australian government as those who fit one of more of these categories:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • People from low socio-economic status (low SES) backgrounds
  • People from regional and remote areas
  • People with disabilities
  • People from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) and/or
  • Women enrolled in non-traditional areas of study.

How enabling programs compare

Disadvantaged students who get into university via an enabling program generally experience better first-year retention rates than those using other pathways. This is a very important finding, as completing first year is a generally good predictor of likely future success in university studies.

Disadvantaged students who came to university through the enabling programs expressed greater satisfaction with the experience than those coming through VET. However, this finding can partly be explained by the fact that, unsurprisingly, most VET students undertook the VET qualification for its own benefits and not as a pathway to university studies.

Students from low SES students, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, regional and remote students and NESB students who get into university via an enabling program experience better first-year retention rates than both the same type of equity group students who get in via a VET qualification and the same type of equity students who are in the university student population.

More details will be available as part of the project’s final report.

Enabling programs are not just for mature aged students

There is a common perception that enabling programs are for mature age people returning to study. However, our data shows the programs are popular across age ranges. In fact that there are more 17-18 year olds than 30-60 year olds enrolled in enabling programs across Australia.

It seems that enabling programs are a popular pathway for school leavers with lower ATARs. Expanding enabling places would therefore likely lead to more under-prepared school leavers choosing a pathway to university, rather than going straight into a Bachelor program. This would directly contribute to reducing university undergraduate attrition.

The potential of enabling programs

We surveyed the perceptions of 981 students who participated in enabling programs and 1230 who participated in VET prior at university. A detailed analysis of their responses is ongoing and will be available as part of the project’s final report.

One student from a low SES background sums up the sentiment on the benefits of completing an enabling program:

“It gave me the confidence I need to even try. I am 41 years old and had left high school when I was in year 10 and from then on had worked full time office based jobs. Due to being a poor student at school I had always thought that university was out of reach for me. However, completing [the enabling program] revealed I had more potential than I ever would have imagined.”

As you can see our findings could have a wide ranging impact, from government policy and funding, through how universities structure and offer enabling programs, to personal decisions made by disadvantaged students.

To register your interest in this project, and to have the final report sent to you upon its completion, please email ncsehe@curtin.edu.au


DevlinMarcia Devlin is Professor of Learning Enhancement and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. @MarciaDevlin

The research team includes Professor Sue Trinidad and Dr Tim Pitman from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University, Dr Andrew Harvey and Matt Brett from La Trobe University and Dr Jade McKay from Deakin University. The project was funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training via the Higher Education Participation Programme’s National Priorities Pool, 2014.

Andrew Harvey is presenting a paper Pathways To Higher Education: A Comparison Of Enabling Programs And Vet Pathways at the 2015 AARE conference in Fremantle, Western Australia, this week (with Tim Pitman present to help answer questions).