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University-wide accessibility enhances experiences for students with disability

Media release

New research has shown a universal approach to accessible facilities, course delivery, and disability awareness will enhance participation and success for university students with disability, particularly those from regional areas.

The study by National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) Equity Fellow Associate Professor Tim Pitman from Curtin University identified opportunities to improve students’ experiences and outcomes.

“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,” Associate Professor Pitman said.

“These indicators are generally lower for regional students with disabilities than metropolitan students with disabilities.”

This Fellowship investigated differences between the experiences of regional and non-regional students with disabilities, to assist stakeholders in understanding how they can support students in their higher education studies.

The research explored how trained, professional disability support officers and the wider institutional community supported students with disabilities in higher education.

Associate Professor Pitman said students’ voices were prioritised in the study, which engaged over 1700 students with disabilities, including 550 regional students.

“Many of these students reported social barriers regarding attitudes towards students; processes and procedures; the physical and built environment; communication and delivery of course content; and social inclusion in both curricular and extracurricular activities,” Associate Professor Pitman said.

“Regional students with disabilities face additional issues concerning access to specialist health services; the digital divide; and the quality of support services at regional institutions.”

Data analysis showed the overwhelming majority of students with disabilities also suffered from mental health issues.

“Mental illness is a recognised category of disability; however, often students will advise universities that they have a mental health condition only when they are advising them of another condition,” Associate Professor Pitman said.

“This suggests that there are many students suffering from mental health issues that universities are in a position to support but are falling through the cracks.”

COVID-19 had a demonstrable effect on support levels, with both regional and metropolitan students with disabilities experiencing a decline in support in 2020.

The research informed recommendations for institutional practice and policy, including mandatory disability awareness training and the implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

“Higher education institutions should make greater efforts to adopt principles of UDL which ensure buildings, technology, products, and services can be used by virtually everyone,” Associate Professor Pitman said.

“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.”

NCSEHE Director Professor Sarah O’Shea commended the research for its student-focused approach and practical recommendations to support all students, regardless of their ability.

“An institution-wide commitment to accessibility and student support is particularly important for students who may be reluctant to disclose their disability or to request reasonable accommodations, as well as the broader university population,” Professor O’Shea said.

The final report, Supporting persons with disabilities to succeed in higher education, will be accessible here on 9 March 2022: https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/publications/persons-disabilities-higher-education/