Study with just a little help
How do students with a disability manage their study needs at university? There are people who can help. Universities have staff that assist students with a disability. They help the student to write a plan that explains what they need to study and have equal access. A student who is deaf may need an Auslan interpreter. Or a student with a vision impairment may need study notes that can be read aloud by a computer program. Some students need extra time during tests and exams. Support for the students from their teachers is also very important.
Posted by: Graeme Turner, on 16/08/12
Are universities up to passing the exam?
Karen Pritchard is a marketing student who has macula degeneration. She recalls first meeting one of her lecturers at the University of Western Sydney.
She approached me on my very first lecture and coincidentally her brother has exactly the same eye disease, she says.
Aiding people with disabilities
When it comes to aiding students with a disability, are universities up to passing the exam?
Students with all types of disabilities can face big hurdles at tertiary institutions. Those with a vision impairment may have trouble accessing notes and journal articles. They may need learning materials in Braille or in an electronic format that can be read out or magnified by a computer. People who are Deaf could need help in processing lectures and discussions. People with intellectual or learning barriers may need literacy support.
The disability liaison units at the various TAFEs and universities are there to help.
Learning action plan
Alana Lucas, the disability liaison officer (DLO) at RMIT explains that services are in place at universities to respond to changes in disability law. The main aim is for students with a disability to be more included in all aspects of university life.
Students with a disability first sit down with a DLO to develop and work out a learning access plan. This is a legal document that points out the obligation of the school to take steps to include students with disabilities under anti-discrimination law.
Previous to learning access plans, the DLO used to speak on behalf of students to gain them equal services. Now this statement of law in the learning access plan offers a powerful tool for the student to speak up for themselves.
Karen says her plan is a document that proves she's not making up her particular student needs.
It's the golden key that opens the door.
There will always be some students with learning or emotional challenges who find it difficult to speak up for themselves. DLOs assist in helping them to get a better deal. They can also put students with social or emotional issues in touch with counselling services.
What assistance is available?
Students who are Deaf may access Auslan interpreters or note takers. Alana says there are devices that can record lectures while taking photos of notes, which can later be enlarged for easier reading.
With exams or tests I'm usually allowed extra time, says Toby Felix, a building design student at RMIT who has reading difficulties because of dyslexia.
He benefits from questions being read aloud. He uses computer technology to read documents, learns through talking with others, and has selected a course based around design drawing rather than in writing long essays.
I'm becoming more independent in having to deal with it, Toby says of his study support.
I've had lots of practice and lots of training with specialists.
The bigger picture
A DLO at Deakin University, Claire Nilhill points out that removing barriers to access issues should be built into the overall functioning of the university. For example, the library takes on the main role of seeing that books and articles are in the right reading format for people with a vision impairment.
At her university, Karen found a training module for library use which featured text that was contained in an image. This material needed to be converted to straight text for easier reading.
Role of academics
Occasionally an academic questions the process of students receiving what they see as special treatment. Or they may question the capability of a student with a disability. Claire recalls how one lecturer could not see how a Deaf student could handle a particular video. Eventually the film was set up with captions for the student to read.
Most academics are now presented with the chance to display materials in varying formats to help a broad range of students and not just those with disability.
It appears academics have continued to improve their attitudes towards students with individual needs. Felix finds his lecturers are aware and supportive of him. Karen observes that students need to be diligent.
Nobody will actually hold your hand and do it for you, she says.
To anyone who has a disability and is considering a tertiary course Felix is clear.
Go in there and get help as soon as possible and get to know the people as quickly as possible so you're not struggling near the end.
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