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You are reading: Supporting persons with disabilities to succeed in higher education

NCSEHE Equity Fellowship final report

Tim Pitman, Curtin University

Executive summary

This report details the findings and recommendations from the NCSEHE Research Fellowship entitled “Supporting persons with disabilities from regional, rural, and remote Australia to succeed in higher education.” The study explored how students with disabilities were supported in their higher education studies by trained, professional disability support officers and the wider institutional community. A key aim of the study was to investigate whether there were any significant differences between the experiences of regional and metropolitan Australia students with disabilities.

Key questions

The research was guided by the following questions:
RQ1. Is there any evidence that persons with disabilities face barriers to participating and succeeding in higher education?
RQ2. What barriers to success do persons with disabilities experience within higher education institutions?
RQ3. What barriers to success do persons with disabilities experience externally to their higher education institutions that institutions can nonetheless ameliorate?
RQ4. Are there any significant differences between regional and metropolitan students with disabilities regarding the first three research questions?

Research design

This study adopted a mixed-methods approach to data collection and analysis, including:

  • statistical data provided by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment
  • a national survey of higher education students with disabilities and higher education staff
  • interviews via emails.

The national survey of students with disabilities was completed by more than 1,700 students, including more than 550 regional students. This response rate provided a strong foundation from which to draw findings and recommendations.


The key findings from the study are:

  1. Despite increases in participation over the last decade, people with disabilities remain underrepresented in higher education and lag national averages for retention, success and completion. These indicators are generally lower for regional students with disabilities than metropolitan students with disabilities.
  2. In the national survey, students with disabilities generally reported high satisfaction levels with disability support. However, there was also evidence that social barriers remain for some students with disabilities regarding:
    – attitudes towards students with disabilities
    – processes and procedures intended to support students with disabilities
    – the physical and built environment—in particular, the failure in some cases to follow principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
    – communication—particularly how educational content is delivered, both in the classroom and online
    – social inclusion in both curricular and extracurricular activities.
  3. In terms of satisfaction with support, there was little difference in ratings between regional and metropolitan students. However, regional students with disabilities face issues concerning:
    – access to specialist health services
    – the digital divide
    – the quality of support services at regional institutions.
  4. COVID-19 has had a demonstrable effect on support levels, with both regional and metropolitan students with disabilities experiencing a decline in support in 2020.


  1. That higher education institutions make greater efforts to adopt principles of the Universal Design for Learning
    UDL ensures that buildings, technology, products, and services can be used by virtually everyone, regardless of ability. The greater the level of accessibility, the greater the number of students who will not need reasonable adjustments made to their educational experience. This should be a focus for the increasing use of online and remote learning technologies.
  2. That higher education institutions move to adopt sector-wide, uniform standards for accessible web design
    Given the ubiquity of web-based teaching and learning, uniform accessibility standards must be adopted. Accessibility includes using graphics with alternative text (alt text); audio; the need for a mouse or scroll bar; problems with large files hampering download speeds, refresh rates, and other computer functions; and disorganised text causing problems for users with a non-English speaking background or learning disabilities. Adopting minimum standards will benefit all students, particularly those studying online, where regional students with disabilities are overrepresented.
  3. That higher education institutions should make disability awareness training mandatory for all higher education staff
    Most students with disabilities report receiving relatively high levels of support and understanding from disability support offices (DSOs). However, stress and anxiety are generated through interactions with the wider higher education community (e.g., lecturers and administrative staff) due to their insufficient understanding of the needs of students with disabilities. If the teaching staff’s awareness and understanding are insufficient—which is too often the case—then the support might be delivered insufficiently. As this report describes, support needs to be understood not generically, but in various contexts, namely:
    – Attitudes
    – Procedures
    – The physical or built environment
    – Communication
    – Technology
    – Social inclusion.
    As understanding and awareness of disabilities are still developing, training should be refreshed regularly to ensure best practice is maintained. Retraining should occur at least once every three years. While the responsibility for training lies with the higher education provider, there is scope for the Federal Government to contribute, for example, by funding a national training strategy.
  4. That the above recommendations be formalised in the Disability Standards for Education (2005)
    Ideally, these recommendations should be enshrined in the Disability Standards for Education (2005) (DSE). This document is a critical interface between the overarching legal requirements set out in the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) (DDA), Australia’s ratification of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), and specific policies and procedures enacted at the institutional level. The DSE sets the minimum, uniform requirements for the rights of persons with disabilities in higher education. The DSE should explicitly recommend that institutions move towards principles of UDL and that their progression towards the same be assessed as a criterion for ensuring compliance with the DSE. This should also apply to disability awareness training.

Recommendation 5

That the Department of Education, Skills and Employment Equity in Higher Education Panel (EHEP) investigate ways in which higher education institutions can demonstrate, transparently, their practical commitment and compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) and Disability Standards for Education (2005)

  • Public accountability would help ensure that higher education institutions are:
  • Meeting the minimum requirements of the DDA and DSE.
  • Being proactive about addressing issues without an individual needing to take formal action or raise a complaint.
  • Promulgating best practices throughout the institution and sector more widely.

Read the full report, Supporting persons with disabilities to succeed in higher education

Equity Fellowship Snapshot — Supporting persons with disabilities to succeed in higher education


This research was funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

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