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You are reading: High-performing students with disabilities more resilient than peers

Research funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University has found that high-performing students with disabilities are more resilient than their peers and utilise their personal and social networks to help them overcome environmental challenges that serve as barriers to their success in higher education.

The study, undertaken by a team of researchers from the University of Southern Queensland, explored the lived experiences of students with a self-disclosed disability enrolled at a regional university in Australia.

“Over the past several years, there has been a steady growth in the numbers of students with a disability enrolling in Australian universities,” said project lead Dr Rahul Ganguly, Lecturer in Education at the University of Southern Queensland.

“Despite the growth in enrolment numbers, students with disabilities continue to be under-represented in higher education and experience more difficulty in completing university coursework than their non-disabled peers.”

“Our study explored the socio-demographics, academic, and disability-related characteristics of a group of students with disabilities in the higher education system. We examined the relationship between resilience, career optimism, well-being, academic satisfaction and academic achievement, and we interviewed high-achieving students with disability about their university experiences, looking for insights that may be helpful to their peers who weren’t performing quite so well.”

Dr Ganguly said the high-performing students with disabilities interviewed by the research team shared many common individual characteristics, attributing most of their perceived barriers to academic success to external environmental factors rather than to individual factors.

“The high-performing students we worked with all took personal responsibility for their actions, have good personal social networks, perseverance, resourcefulness, and pragmatic expectations of themselves and of life.”

“Regarding the barriers faced by students with disabilities, the students we spoke to told us they felt misunderstood by university teaching staff and unsupported by administrative staff. They encountered frequent staff turnover in support services offices, meaning that too often important paperwork ended up being lost and that they had to tell their stories time and time again. The students also found that some course material was inaccessible, that they were sometimes ridiculed by their peers for being different, and that university staff generally had low expectations of them,” said Dr Ganguly.

The report recommended that, given the increasing number of students with psychological or emotional disability entering post-secondary settings, universities re-examine their disability support policies and services.

“For many students, including those with disability, entering higher education can be stressful. While many students adapt to the changing roles and responsibilities, many others find this period overwhelming and stressful. Traditional disability support service delivery should be re-examined, particularly given so many students now study online.”

NCSEHE Director, Professor Sue Trinidad, emphasised the importance of higher education in addressing social inequality and the ongoing need for universities to support students with disability.

“A shift towards more accessible teaching practices and the wider availability of learning support for students with disabilities will increase their chances of success at university and in their working lives.”

“I congratulate the researchers on this important report and look forward to discussion on the findings.”