A quarter of a century ago, estimates put the number of people with disability enrolled at university at as few as 5000. Today, that number tops 75,000. In terms of increased participation, people with disability are a genuine higher education success story.

But, so far, that participation win has not translated into staying-in and completing higher education. Here, students with disability still face significant social, technological and other barriers.

I’m in the midst of a 12-month fellowship funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, examining the best and the worst of disability support in Australian higher education. More than 1,700 students with disability participated in a national survey and several hundred of them took part in detailed, follow-up discussions.

Much of what I’ve found will come as little surprise to people who have advocated and researched in this area for any length of time: for example, that universities generally offer supportive and safe spaces for students with disability. It is important to remember that many disabilities are hidden and students exercise agency as to if, when and how they disclose. So our supportive environments are as much down to them as it is to people without disability.

What my research has also revealed is how much an overall supportive environment can be disproportionately impacted by a single bad actor, process or learning design. The study found numerous examples of students who were initially treated well by their disability support office, but were confronted with uninformed or even negative attitudes in the classroom.

At the end of the day, no matter how fantastic the support provided by the professional services, and how comprehensive the access plan is, if a lecturer isn’t empathetic, it will probably fail.

Students also gave many examples of teaching materials, website, technology, etc., that were designed for a neurotypical audience. A neurotypical approach to teaching assumes all students process information in the same way, respond the same way to social interactions or stress, and speak, move or behave in an “expected” way.

These problems were exacerbated with the advent of COVID-19, as universities transitioned suddenly to teaching fully on-line.

As my colleagues, Katie Ellis and Kai-Ti Kao observe, “while the forced shift to on-line learning during this pandemic has the ideal potential to accommodate “non-preferred” users, the actual roll out and delivery of on-line learning is still defaulting to modes that are both difficult and challenging, and in many cases exacerbate existing issues and inequalities.”

The more universities adopt universal design principles in delivering curriculum, the less people with disability will be excluded.

And if we make disability awareness training mandatory for all staff, the less likely it will be that a student will be confronted with barriers that are not caused by their disability, but by others’ reaction to it.


Associate Professor Tim Pitman
Faculty Dean of Research for the Humanities, Curtin University

Equity Fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) [email protected]


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