Uni still a fight for some disabled students

July 19, 2023

Uni still a fight for some disabled students

AUT student Cameron Churchill. Photo: Ke-Xin Li

AUT’s disability-support system might look good on paper, but some students say they still have to fight to have their needs met.

Among the challenges disabled students say they face are unfair penalties and a reluctance from some lecturers to record their classes.

AUT law student Cameron Churchill, who has a vision impairment that makes reading electronically difficult, says he had to go through a lengthy negotiation with the AUT library and his lecturers to find an alternative way to do his class reading.

Churchill says there were not enough hard copies of a textbook in the library.

After a discussion with the law school librarian and lecturers, Churchill was frustrated that no one wanted to take the responsibility to provide him with the access needed.

“We live in the kind of society where we should be able to expect and be able to demand from the society that they meet us halfway in regards to whatever random curse we have.”

After speaking to Disability Support Services, Churchill received financial assistance to purchase textbooks.

However, although knowing his disability at enrolment, Churchill did not approach the disability services because of the trauma related to his injury.

“I don't want to think about it, it's easy to put that away in a box and never think of it.”

He also downplayed his disability.

“When we think of disability, we think of a dude in a wheelchair.

“Can’t deal with light? That seems like not much of a disability. People don’t want to see themselves as disabled.”

Third-year student Naomi (not her real name) lives with epilepsy. She did not inform the university during enrolment because she thought the disability would not affect her study, and only realised she should have after she almost received a penalty.

“I was absent from class one day because I had a seizure [the night before]. I messaged [the lecturer], saying, I won't be in this workshop tomorrow because I've got some medical issue.

“He asked me for a medical certificate and [said] that he would give me a penalty for not going to the workshop. So I emailed [the] Student Hub and said I can't afford to go to the doctor because I'm a student.”

Naomi says that although exam conditions are usually modified to cater for her needs, everyday learning is still challenging.

“In terms of recording workshops and lectures . . . some [lecturers] are really strict. Which can be an issue if you have auditory issues. Or like me, I can get really, really drowsy.”

Both Churchill and Naomi say they understand the limitations the university faces, and they would do anything to get their education.

Naomi says AUT could make staff more aware that learning disabilities can arise later in life and that students can be unaware of them themselves.

Staff need to know when to direct students to Student Hub, where help is available and “where you are treated as a person".

“You’re not just a number.”

AUT Disability Services runs optional workshops for all staff, including education on a variety of disabilities.

AUT disability support practice manager, Anna Nelson, hosts disability awareness workshops for faculties. Photo: Ke-Xin Li

AUT Disability Support practice manager, Anna Nelson, says the workshop is one hour long and usually faculties or individual schools would initiate the training.

However, not all faculties have proactively made arrangements to host it.

Nelson says approximately 15 per cent to 20 per cent of current students reported their disabilities, which is lower than the national level of 25 per cent in our population.

Nelson’s team also sends learning plans on behalf of disabled students to staff at the beginning of each semester, informing lecturers of their students' needs.

AUT People & Culture, the university's human resources department, also runs programmes that raise cultural competency and disability awareness. Like the disabilities workshop, these are not mandatory for staff.

AUT diversity and inclusion manager for People and Culture, Lian-Hong Brebner, says compulsory training can be counterproductive if staff are forced to participate in these programmes.

Some staff says it’s simply too difficult to make time for the training.

AUT school of art and design associate professor, Fiona Amundsen, says she is working drastically over the yearly teaching hour allocation, so she is struggling to provide the additional support needed by her students.

Amundsen, who has been teaching at AUT for 15 years, says university-wide support has been reduced, and the burden is falling more onto lecturers.

Amundsen has been helping a student whose first language is not English.

“I did set [the student] up with the library support. But again, it's very limited. It's one-off or two sessions, where a student like that needs ongoing support as they come to grips with complex ideas and a language that's not their first one.”

James (not his real name), a lecturer at AUT’s Business School, who teaches a course of 360 students, says the teaching-hour allocation often does not consider the class size, making it challenging to cater for all students’ needs.

James has a child with learning disabilities, and says he sees the answer to better disability support in better teaching and teacher training.

“The best thing you can do in a large classroom is to teach according to the scientific evidence. If you teach properly, all the kids benefit, and those with disabilities or learning difficulties benefit the most.”

AUT senior lecturer Olivia Kelly, who worked with the community law centre Auckland Disability Law, says many tertiary education institutions have issues with their disability support system.

“There's a disconnection between what happens at disability services and what happens on the ground when you're a lecturer. I just haven't seen that done really well anywhere.”

Kelly says reasonable accommodation of the needs of the disabled community is required under the Human Rights Act.

The law requires changes to allow disabled people to participate to the same extent as people without disabilities. And the system should work, says Kelly.

“When disability support services identify an accommodation and put together a plan, that's the responsibility of everyone to make sure that's carried out.”

A prevalent issue among disabled students is to do with lecturer recordings.

Former AUT student and wheelchair user Olivia Shivas says she hears from other students with disabilities that lecturer recordings are very helpful.

“People need more flexibility with attending university. Maybe they have medical appointments or have fatigue [and] they can't attend a lecture. At least they'll still be able to access the same information later. “

Kelly says she understands that many lecturers are unwilling to provide recordings, but they should make the learning resource available in another form to accommodate disabled students.

Now working as a journalist, Shivas says it is important that we support our disabled students in the right way.

“It's important that education providers know that this [university] is where many people with disabilities are gaining confidence and skills to enter the workforce.”

AUT is a supporter of Kia Ōrite, a framework that enables students with impairments to achieve fully.

Melissa Lethaby, national president of Kia Ōrite’s toolkit’s developer Achieve, says universities should ensure the disability support system works.

Lethaby says when academics cannot provide lecture recordings, the university can provide note-taking services or tutoring to ensure the information is available in another form.

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