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From Awareness to Action: Safeguarding Disability Inclusion in Australian Higher Education

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As Director of Academic Governance and Standards at Deakin University, Matt Brett recently shared his views on the progression of disability inclusion in Australian higher education over the past 30 plus years and the role of technology in improving accessibility

Disability Inclusion: Moving Beyond Raising Awareness Toward Inspiring Action

Awareness of inclusion for students with disabilities has been achieved.  Our attention now needs to turn more assertively towards taking effective action: what educators do in response to a well understood and documented challenge.

To demonstrate this point, the following is a timeline of the history of disability in Australian higher education.  Disability was first mentioned as a priority group in Australian higher education in 1984, some thirty-five years ago.  Over this time, students with disability have moved from the margin to the mainstream.  In 1984, the Tertiary Education Commission was tasked with identifying priority groups for equity in Australian higher education, naming disability as one of six priority groups.

In 1988, after a Green and White Paper process, the Government introduced significant reforms in Australian higher education, replacing the binary system based on Universities and Colleges of Advanced Education, with a Unified National System of universities.  Through these reforms, the group’s first identified in 1984 were affirmed as a system wide priority and policy goals were set that have defined the next thirty years of Australian higher education.  

The government commissioned a group of industry experts to develop a policy statement – ‘A Fair Chance for All’- to translate the systems equity goals into action. The target was to double the graduation rate for students with disabilities within four years.

Any assessment of progress against this target was hamstrung by the fact that there was no common indicator of disability.  There was no way of measuring the participation of students with disabilities in higher education, nor monitoring progress against the goal of doubling the graduation rate.  This led to the commissioning of a project to develop equity performance indicators, and what was intended as a temporary indicator for disability remains unchanged some 25 years later.

It is around this time that Australia introduced national legislation to make discrimination against people with disabilities unlawful.  The Disability Discrimination Act of 1992 affirmed the rights of persons with disabilities to obtain an education free from direct or indirect discrimination.

The book ‘Student equity in Australian higher education: Twenty-five years of A Fair Chance for All’, includes reference to the struggles of getting disability recognised within the equity policy framework.  At the time, persons of influence in higher education were actively advocating for disability not to be included in the equity indicator framework.  It eventually was accepted; but highlights that disability at this point in time was right at the margins.  People viewed it as important, but it hadn’t yet been fully integrated in our way of thinking about higher education.

Since its inception, several researchers and policy consultation processes have sought to improve or refine the temporary performance indicator for disability but as of today they remain unchanged.  This is a reminder that if we are going to create policy around inclusion, we should be mindful that what might be considered as temporary initially may well become permanent. 

With all this in mind; do we really need more disability awareness?

It could be argued that we have enough awareness right now and that we can get on with the work that needs to be done, without so much concern about disability.  Yet, if you were to look at some of the metrics around disability in Australian higher education, you will find that the success rates for students with disabilities are lower, as is the retention rate, the satisfaction of students, their full time employment and employment satisfaction.

Across every metric there is a disparity that suggests there is room for improvement in the way we engage with disability in Australian higher education.  We may have a legal frameworks policy in place and we may be aware there are legitimate needs to be taken into account, however, this is not enough anymore.  The emphasis needs to turn to the things that are more effective in minimising the disparities that are evident. 

From Conception to Production, Technology That Is Built for Everyone

While we have standards around disability inclusion for higher education, we are missing standards for technology accessibility of any form.  The Human Rights Commission has issued standards around content and there are web accessibility guidelines, but they have no real legal standing in Australia.  If we look at other countries, however, we see a different situation.  In the United States, the Rehabilitation Act became law in 1973, followed by the Education for All Handicap Children Act in 1975.  That’s a good 20 years ahead of Australia in terms of national disability rights legislation.  The U.S. has the same issues we have here in Australia, however they have far more stringent standards around disability access than our country.  If anything is going to happen around technology standards it is likely to take place in the U.S. first.

For web accessibility and accessibility standards, if we were to consider the evolution of concepts or objects across time, right now APIs are the flavour of the month technology.  However, technology and accessibility do not always go hand in hand.  

At one point, Multimedia Flash was ‘the it thing’ but in hindsight Flash wasn’t particularly accessible.  There is a tension between innovation, saying ‘let’s develop this really cool whizbang and potentially inaccessible technology’, and inclusion.  We might put a brake on innovation if disability inclusion were to be hard-wired into all technology – think telephones and hearing impairments for example.  Somehow, we need to find a way of managing both priorities.

If my life’s story and experience have taught me anything, it is the importance of being pragmatic and recognising that inclusion is dynamic.  Disability cannot always be a top priority because it is not.  There are many other competing priorities and it is our responsibility to find the right balance between competing interests and making sure that we are doing the best we can with the tools in our disposal. 

Let’s think about smartphones.  Whether you have an iPhone or a Samsung, you can see that iOS and Android have accessibility features built in.  However, Apple and Google don’t control everything.  There are apps, there are different features, and there are different activities, which at times are difficult to make accessible.

And while we now have features like haptics readily available, with text and websites far more accessible, there is still a question around the accessibility of images.  How do we address the more complex graphical information that is key to many of our disciplines?  It is somewhat difficult to fathom how we might structure this type of information in an efficient and successful way.  To add context, if a university today were to produce a 3D map of its campus, it would need to carry out a significant project, including capturing the cartography, developing the schematics through web software that generates the map and then linking to the 3D printer.

While this example highlights the difficulties we face today, it also shows that the frontiers of accessibility are evolving and changing rapidly.  We just need to find ways of being able to keep on top of that and to continue to try and do better. 

Cultivating Inclusion Through Community and Society One Step at a Time

Every university in Australia will have a disability action plan and disability service.  They are all trying to do the right thing but the internal prioritisation that dictates what’s important and the level of resourcing considered to be appropriate is not quite at the level necessary to have a transformative impact on inclusion.

While there are still questions of legitimacy around that kind of investment, we need to make sure that we are designing our curriculum to be as inclusive as possible and that we have the most effective supports in place.  The participation of students and the outcomes in terms of differential rates of success and retention plus satisfaction speak for themselves.  We have a gap which we should be aiming to narrow, and no university currently has a priority to make it as equivalent as possible.

Focusing on inclusion and universal policies requires cooperative efforts within communities and society at large.  We have moved on from disability being shunned as an ‘issue’ or an afterthought, to saying proudly we want to do better and we want to do the best we can.  The key is to make sure we are prioritising our students and graduates to succeed no matter what their disability may be.


Author: Matt Brett is Director of Academic Governance and Standards at Deakin University. As the child of Deaf parents, he has a deep personal commitment to accessibility that has framed his career in higher education.

Matt co-edited Student Equity in Australian Higher Education: 25 Years of A Fair Chance For All. He was a 2017 Equity Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education through which he examined equity performance and accountability. Matt recently led national consultation on developing a new long term strategic vision for student equity in higher education – The Best Chance For All. He can be reached at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/matthew-brett-2463aa8/

Or @MattBrettLTU