On International Day of People With Disabilities, We Ask: How Accessible Are Universities?

On International Day of People With Disabilities, We Ask: How Accessible Are Universities?

Nearly two years ago, I left Florida to pursue my Master of Marketing Communications at the University of Melbourne. But I didn’t leave behind the passion for equity and inclusion I gained while studying social work at the University of Central Florida. 

“I feel isolated. I want to go to events. I want to meet other students. But I can never find out ahead of time if an event is accessible, and I don’t want to show up just to have to go home,” said one student.  

I have a particular interest in access and inclusion because it is so absolutely necessary to include diverse groups, and because often, regardless of intentions, we may not always be as inclusive as we hope to be.

I have no doubt that universities across Australia aim to be accessible for students, but with over 1.3 million students enrolled in universities nation-wide, creating access is something that requires serious dedication and a lot of information. I’ve chatted with students with disabilities attending universities across the country, and regardless of good intentions, my conversations reveal that students with disabilities are often falling between the cracks.

A Case Study

“There was no phone number to call the disability support office and when I tried to make an appointment, I couldn’t book one for two weeks,”said another student.

Although university students with disabilities are most certainly missing out in the classroom, they’re missing out in so many other ways too. A year ago, I was involved in co-founding Accessible Unimelb, a student-led organisation which provides a space for students with disabilities and other members of the University of Melbourne community to come together to work on accessibility, advocacy, and inclusion initiatives.

Through this process, I heard many students express their frustration over issues like not receiving the adjustments they needed in order to succeed,  a lack of employment and employability resources, and being asked inappropriate questions by staff about their disability or ability to perform at the university. Many students also reported feeling routinely stigmatised and stereotyped by their disability.

In addition to these issues, I’ve heard students express time and time again that they’re often facing the following obstacles:

  • Not knowing who to go to when facing barriers.
  • Not knowing what resources exist to support them.
  • Facing physical barriers, like a lack of accessible parking spaces or buildings that aren’t physically accessible. 
  • Feeling scared that they may have to withdraw or may fail classes due to inadequate adjustments. 
  • Facing long, confusing processes when they do need support.

These aren’t burdens any student should have to endure, yet across the country, students with disabilities must navigate setbacks that may impact success at uni, their wellbeing, social lives, and so much more.

In a best-case scenario, students must deal with these unnecessary stresses. In worst-case scenarios, students have no option but to withdraw from university. This isn’t necessarily due to a lack of effort from the universities, but due to a lack of knowledge around what really needs to be done to support and include students with disabilities.

How can universities become more accessible places for people with disabilities?

“When I applied for uni, I checked the box saying I wanted to receive support for my disability. I never got a call or email afterwards,” said another student.

In its first year, Accessible Unimelb has provided a sense of community and a resource for students with disabilities. Members have been consulted with on accessibility issues related to new construction projects around the University of Melbourne Parkville campus, ensuring that this underrepresented group of students has an impact on the future of the university.

At its very core, accessibility at universities depends on asking students with disabilities what they really need, and being willing to provide those resources. But it’s also necessary for universities to take accountability and assess where they may have gone off course, where they may be lacking, what they can offer students, and how they can train staff to engage with students with disabilities in a positive way. The future of education needs to be accessible and inclusive, and it’s up to our education providers, not our students, to make this future a reality.

 

Resources to help with accessibility