Tackling disability support: is WSU really the uni that “cares”?

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Illustration by Daniel Krivacic.

How proactive is the university with disability support?

Western Sydney University (WSU) advertises itself as a supporter of equality for all and “committed to creating an equitable and inclusive environment for all students and staff, including those with disability.” Several anecdotes from students with disabilities at the university question if some of its services have fallen short, are understaffed and under-resourced.

For disability culture, ableism is a topic of grave significance, with many wishing to eradicate it from the community. People with any functional or physical disability have protected rights under several international human rights conventions, including the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, to ensure fair treatment in equitable and inclusive environments.

In Australia, disability affects 1 in 5 people. Of the 6.8% of Australian domestic students with a disability, 79% are undergraduate, and 21% are postgraduate. However, Terri Mears, Manager of Disability Services at WSU, said this is not reflected in the number of students registered with the Disability Service, as of May, they have supported 2163 students over the last 12 months.

“There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that some students may be unaware of the service, and hopefully, articles such as this one will raise awareness for students with a disability that there is support provided at the university,” said Ms Mears.

Australian Student Disability Statistics. Source: University of Melbourne.

Where is WSU’s accessible and inclusive environment?

There has been a lack of accommodation in the recruitment stage for a student with a disability. A former Disability Collective Officer and student, Paulin, recently experienced a lack of inclusivity to accommodate her disability upon applying for a job on campus. The job application and position description clearly stated the job would be across multiple university campuses.

SRC Bankstown Representative and former SRC Disability Collective Representative Vicky-Rae Renier-Clark noted two issues with Paulin’s recruitment case, similar to a former student and wheelchair user who attended WSU.

“One in terms of reasonable adjustments for those with a disability during the recruiting process, and the second being misleading students on job listings”, said Ms Reiner-Clark.

“The convenor of an interview panel is responsible for ensuring applicants accommodations for an interview are implemented. The convenor can ask for support regarding accommodations from the Human Resources team or the Equity & Diversity team,” said Ms Mears.

“I applied at the beginning of February, but I didn’t hear back about my application, so I assumed that I didn’t get the role because it was past the application close date and the training days,” said Paulin.

She received a call on the 8th of March saying she was shortlisted for the student engagement ambassador and received an interview offer at Hawkesbury for the 9th or 10th of March – a campus well known for its cows, dams, uneven gravel, and lack of accessibility.

Before Paulin mentioned her disability, the WSU staff member said how the role would need her to attend various campuses of her choosing. Paulin then requested an interview via zoom or at the Parramatta South campus due to her need for accessibility provisions.

“If they had said the interview was only in Hawkesbury, then I wouldn’t have applied,” said Paulin.

The caller said they would email their supervisor and call Paulin later in the afternoon. The next day the staff member didn’t remember the conversation or who Paulin was but was willing to argue Paulin’s case and help change the process. Paulin was told she “Would probably have to do her interview after the initial interviews took place”, – which left her knowing she wouldn’t get the role, and she hasn’t heard back since.

“Any request for adjustments to the application or interview process should be fully considered, and accommodated where possible, with applicants informed at all stages. It appears aspects of this process may have broken down in Paulin’s case and we apologise for this. We are investigating the information provided in the article and commit to a review to ensure a more positive candidate experience in the future,” said Kellie Whitney from Careers, Talent and Organisational Success.

It appears that the university is not as committed as it claims to be, providing accessibility and inclusivity for staff and students with disabilities. The WSU website states that staff with a disability or chronic disease may be eligible to have reasonable adjustments implemented to meet their role’s inherent requirements. However, cases like such raise the question of whether this is practised.

Teaching accommodations for students – where are they?

A female student studying a Bachelor of Social Science at Bankstown has accommodations for lectures, tutorial slides and extensions for assignments due to her chronic intellectual disorder. However, she was told by a Lecturer and Unit Coordinator that she did not need the accommodations.

When the student’s case was presented to the Disability Service by Robert Reed, the current SRC Disability Collective Representative, no further support was offered to the Bankstown student from the Disability Service.

“While lecturers have the discretion to evaluate student requests for special consideration, there isn’t added support for students or carers with a disability and don’t take into account the quality of mental health due to personal circumstances.” Robert says.

A male student studying a Bachelor of Health Science (Forensic Science) at Hawkesbury had accommodations regarding make up classes due to a medical condition stripped from him after an Academic Integration Plan (AIP) review. Upon advocating to the Disability Service, WSU staff stated that it’s at the discretion of the unit coordinator to approve or deny the make-up class. Students cannot gauge when they will be missing classes and apply in advance to exacerbate symptomology.

The Disability Service updated the AIP processes to comply with WSU policies which state that a student has to apply for special consideration if they miss compulsory classes. They say that unit coordinators have always been responsible for making decisions about mandatory class attendance requirements.

Note: Leaving decisions to the unit coordinator allows room for bias and lack of consistency in the treatment of students with a disability.

Vicky-Rae and another WSU student studying B Arts Pathways to Teaching were told three years into their degrees that they cannot be teachers, due to their disabilities, by their disability advisors (DAs).

Vicky-Rae found out three days before Christmas last year, stunned by the sudden news as she studied with the Australian Defence Force Academy and passed the Army Aptitude test,

“Apparently, having Autism and Dyscalculia disqualifies me from becoming a teacher” she says.

“When we confronted head Disability Services, they said it did not occur because there’s nothing on our files beyond requesting we meet with careers, Teach NSW and QuEST to discuss options. Although the DAs explicitly told us we couldn’t teach and to pick another degree,” she adds.

Fast forward to the 24th of March, where Vicky-Rae had her progression meeting and discovered with little surprise – the Bachelor of Arts Pathways do not have inherent requirements, nor are they accredited by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA).

“They only had concerns about my numeracy and stamina, with both concerns dropped when I told them that I had been approved for the Australian Defence Force, so I cannot understand why that would be an issue for the teaching environment. The DAPs for both Pathways and Masters of Teaching would like to see me remain in the program and cannot see why Disability Services was trying to discontinue my enrolment,” said Vicky-Rae.

Ms Mears states that the Disability Service can only provide information and advice to students, and are unable to discontinue a student’s enrolment.

Is the university being proactive when approaching disability?

Under-resourced staff is an ongoing issue when it comes to disability support. The Disability Service readjusted their team after some staff accepted volunteer redundancies – and lost two part-time staff disability advisors. However, they did not lose any disability support staff.

The university applies for retrospective funding from the Department of Education, Skills & Employment (DESE) under the Higher Education Disability Support Program. DESE has, in recent years, retrospectively paid the university approximately 50% of all costs associated with supporting students with disability.

“The costs of the Disability Service salaries (DAs and Disability Support staff) are not included in this application for funding as DESE does not provide universities with funding for these roles. The Higher Education Disability Support Program underwent a review, and there is a new system for claiming retrospective funding. Currently, the university does not know what percentage of costs we will be reimbursed for. There is no expectation that there will be an increase,” said Ms Mears.

WSU arranged a strategic planning meeting in November last year after the strategic plan was launched, referred to as their ‘Sustaining Success’ plan. However, students who identified as part of the LGBTQI community and students with a disability were not mentioned in the report – with women only mentioned once in the equity commitment of the university.

On this same page, it states:

“As a university of and for Western Sydney region and the world, we will set the benchmark for diversity, inclusiveness and equity,” as WSU’s second goal, with no measurable metrics or objectives whatsoever to achieve it. The discussion only aimed towards international and indigenous students whilst emphasising ‘diversity’ eleven times throughout the document. With the lack of representation, it is hard to see how diversity is being met besides being referenced in a published document.

“There has been a massive gap in the duty of care across the board for many years, which is why they moved from a student-centred to a sustainable university under the new strategic plan,” said Vicky-Rae.

Note: The Accessibility Action Plan is supposed to be drawn this year for WSU. However, skip forward to June 2021; there has still been no input from students and representatives.

WSU organised student consultation and focus groups after the final plan was published and launched in October last year, contradicting the website, which states that the consultation process began in August 2019, to be analysed in October 2019, a year before these emails were sent.

“It’s a systematic issue of tokenistic gestures, with no real support or advocacy from the University itself to support their most in need,” said Paulin.

The Accessibility Action Plan was last put together in 2018, and according to the Disability Collective, the draft for the new plan was due last year. However, it has not been started by the Office of Equity and Diversity.

Michelle Corbett, Senior Coordinator, Equity and Diversity (EOD) provided some insight into why a current Accessibility Action Plan is not yet in place but ensured EOD are in a position to commence consultation and planning with students and staff.

“A new plan has not yet been finalised . . . 2020, as you know, was a period of unprecedented, unforeseen, rapid change due to the impact of COVID 19 . . . We have also continued where appropriate to work on goals that were ongoing from the previous Accessibility Action Plan,” said Ms Corbett.

“Unfortunately, the timeline on the website was not updated and the actual development timeline became quite different as the planning process progressed. The strategic plan was launched in February 2021, not October 2020.

“As of the second half of 2020, there is a monthly meeting between the Disability Collective, the Assistive Technology (AT) team and the Disability Service. This meeting provides an opportunity for each service to provide an update on what is happening, to raise any issues that students with disability may be experiencing and to find solutions where possible,” said Ms Mears.

However, according to the Disability Collective who were initially invited to these meetings by the AT team, the Disability Service does not provide feedback to raised issues other than the promise of looking into cases, with no future correspondence about resolutions.

“The goal of  the Disability Service is to support students to reach their full academic potential. The team strive to continuously improve the service we provide to students by keeping up to date with the latest evidence-based practice and new and emerging technologies,” said Ms Mears.

WSU cannot expect students to remain quiet about unfairness when they tell everyone how much they “care”. Unfortunately, the provided anecdotes are just a few of the many cases. It is essential that the university, with its immense diversity of people and students with disabilities, ensures that it creates a genuinely inclusive, supportive and equitable environment.

Students can contact the Disability Service for support at disability@westernsydney.edu.au or: 1300 668 370 – dial 4 then press 1.

Sarah Cupitt

Sarah Cupitt (pronounced like Que-Pitt) is an ambitious university student, journalist and writer interested in…

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