The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success acknowledges Indigenous peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our campuses are situated. With a history spanning 60,000 years as the original educators, Indigenous peoples hold a unique place in Australia. We recognise the importance of their knowledge and culture, and reflect the principles of participation, equity, and cultural respect in our work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future, and consider it an honour to learn from our Indigenous colleagues, partners, and friends.

You are reading: NCSEHE Student Equity Snapshots Forum — Disability support in higher education: What our students are telling us

The NCSEHE hosted a series of lightning talks and online discussions presented by the 2019/20 Equity Fellows on 26–30 October 2020.

In this lightning talk, Associate Professor Tim Pitman (Curtin University) shares a snapshot of his NCSEHE Equity Fellowship, which focuses on supporting people with disability from regional, rural and remote Australia, to succeed in higher education.

This year, Tim has been asking students with disability to rate the level of support they receive from their higher education institution. In this talk, Tim provides insight into what students are saying, about how they are being supported. This includes not only the physical infrastructure of the university but also its rules and processes, the attitudes of people, technology, communication, and its social life. Tim also talks about how support is perceived by regional students, compared to their urban peers.

Tim is joined for Q and A by guest facilitator Louise Pollard (The University of Notre Dame Australia).

Lightning talk recording

Full recording (including Q and A)

Full transcript (including Q and A)


#NCSEHE_Snapshots publication

Lightning talk transcript

Hello. This recording was made on the land of the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation and I pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

Here I want to share a little of what I have learned so far in my Fellowship which explores how universities can better support students with disability in their studies.

A bit of background might help here. There are approximately 75,000 higher education students with disability in Australia, in fact the actual number is certain to be higher because not all students choose to identify, but let’s take that as a starting point. Of those 75,000, around 15,000 are in regional Australia. The most common types of disability recorded are mental health and medical conditions.

Key to my Fellowship has been prioritising the voice of students with disability. There is a saying in disability studies, “Nothing about us without us”, and this has been central to my research design. The findings that I’m about to share with you come directly from the students via a national survey followed up by more detailed conversations. Over 1,700 students participated in the survey and several hundred have taken part in the follow-up stage. The response has been extraordinary.

I am incredibly grateful to all of them. Here’s what they’ve shared with me so far.

One type of support universities can offer is attitudinal. This refers to the way they treat their students with disability — behave around them. Overall, universities score quite well in this regard. They’re seen as open and inclusive environments; however, this is sometimes because we don’t see the disability, either because the student is studying online or, as some of them have described it to me, their disability is invisible.

Universities can also support students with disability by implementing clear processes and procedures to let students know how and where they can receive support. Again, universities score quite well in this regard. Clear, regular and proactive communication is really appreciated. Less appreciated is when this support is impersonal, generic and slow to react.

Technological support is about the software and hardware that universities can employ to assist students with their learning needs. Increasingly, students with disability are bringing their own solutions to universities and they appreciate it when the institution is flexible enough to incorporate them into their own systems. Inclusive design principles are also helpful for many students with disability. For example, if all online lectures are provided with closed captions, then that’s very useful, as opposed to requiring a student with disability to have to make a specific request.

Built environment support is not just about ramps and lifts, it includes low-level noise environments, quiet spaces and appropriate lighting levels. Universities are rated so-so in this respect. A strong theme that is emerging through my discussion with students is a need for more to be done in the area of inclusive design. Rather than make one room or one building or one unit of study in a course accessible, if we can design entire campuses or modes of delivery in this way then all students—not just those with disabilities—will benefit.

Social inclusion is important for students with disability as those without but, unfortunately, here universities are not rated so well. The issue of neurodiversity is mentioned often here in the sense that too many activities or events are organised on the assumption that all participants have equal levels of mobility or react to stressful environments in exactly the same way.

The final type of support universities provide students with disabilities is, it involves how they communicate with them, especially in the delivery of their teaching and learning. Again, the issue of neurodiversity is important here. We know that different students learn more effectively by different types and styles of instruction and communication. This includes things such as successful web designs and alternative modes of content delivery and assessment. Unfortunately, it’s here that universities receive the lowest ratings for support.

There’s a lot more I can, and could, discuss including the particular issues faced by regional students or the effects the coronavirus pandemic has had on students with disability. These topics and more will be included fully in my final report but for now thank you very much for your time.

Lightning talk slides (accessible)

Tim Pitman: Lightning talk information about figures