Anthony Gartner was five weeks into a brand-new job at La Trobe University when campuses in Australia closed for the COVID-19 lockdown.
He’d come on board at the Melbourne-based institution to manage disability services for students. And as La Trobe weathered the pandemic’s upheavals and pivoted to online learning, Gartner saw a window to open discussions about his team’s work, too.
“The question that I asked the team was: What does education look like in 2050? And how do we get there?” he says. “This was a real opportunity for some blue sky thinking about how we could deliver service that empowered students to be independent learners and better able to participate in the workforce.”
AccessAbility is La Trobe’s support center for students with a variety of often overlapping identities: from those with autism and neurodiversity to dyslexia and learning disabilities to brain injuries and physical disabilities—along with refugees, student caregivers, students from foster care, or veterans. AccessAbility’s team of 13 works with 2,000 students to help them overcome a variety of learning challenges, based on the philosophy of what students can do, not what they cannot.
“We ask: ‘What training can we give that actually enables you to access and express your own unique abilities?'” says Gartner.
Here he explains how that approach fits into broader conversations about inclusion and diversity.
Globally, 15% of the population has some form of disability, according to the World Bank—but these millions of learners haven’t historically had the access to, or been fully included in, higher education. Australia’s 2005 Disability Standards for Education law dictates that every student should be able to participate in learning on an equal basis. In the last five years, disabled students’ enrollment has grown 44% in Australia, reports the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education—but students with disabilities are still less likely than other students to pursue postsecondary education.
Once they do enroll, these students are more likely to report dissatisfaction with their educational experience and likelier to consider dropping courses, according to Australia’s Student Experience Survey. They cite teaching and “learner engagement” as the top reasons why: Course materials can often be difficult to access and physical campus spaces can be unnavigable.
Too often, universities have put up barriers for students rather than considering how to remove them, says Gartner.
“Universities are very good at being gatekeepers. So I encourage [higher education professionals] to think of themselves as enablers instead. What do I need to do to enable this person to be successful? What’s my little part in that puzzle of their success? What hurdles am I putting in the way of someone who doesn't actually need them?” he says.
Holistic, Inclusive Support
A key issue in higher education, scholars say, is that disability has been framed as a medical issue or one of legal compliance, rather than one of inclusion and support. Layered on top of educational challenges are the issues individuals with disabilities across the globe navigate every day: mental and physical health, lower socioeconomic outcomes, ableism and discrimination, and more. More universities and organizations are including disability in ongoing and intersectional conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion—as U.K. nonprofit Diversity and Ability reports.
At AccessAbility, that has meant having a broadly inclusive umbrella of support for working with students of many backgrounds and a variety of needs. An AccessAbility advisor consults with each student to design a personalized learning access plan that balances what students need with what’s feasible within their academic program. Supports might include extra time to take an exam, flexibility with deadlines, or assistive technology. Students may be referred to mental health counseling or peer advising, or to a student-led support group for social connections.
Finances are often a challenge as well for students with disabilities, Gartner explains: “Health is expensive, so a lot of our students with disabilities have very limited financial resources.”
COVID-19 has exacerbated this challenge not only for students with disabilities, but also for student parents, caregivers, and international students. In 2000, Gartner and his team processed 6,000 applications for hardship grants in two weeks. La Trobe gave 3,000 grants in 2020, and another 2,000 in 2021.
The COVID-19 pivot to online learning opened up access to learning for some students with disabilities, but has presented challenges for others. Students with disabilities report having more difficulty accessing the internet, obtaining technology support and training, and communicating with faculty members, according to a 2020 Association on Higher Education and Disability survey.
This is why AccessAbility has worked with La Trobe faculty and students on more accessible teaching and learning practices. In 2020, AccessAbility launched a pilot with one lecturer to deliver her lessons via Microsoft Teams, which creates an automatic, searchable transcript in a fraction of the time (and cost) of sending videos to an outside company. The solution—a hit with students and simple for faculty—won the team an innovation award from La Trobe.
With students, AccessAbility staff work on digital literacy and tools. In 2020, for instance, La Trobe transitioned students who had worked with note takers or scribes to an assistive speech-to-text technology. La Trobe dropped from 53 scribes to 10 in just a semester, says Gartner. This sort of problem solving is crucial for equipping students for life beyond college, he says. In Australia especially, but also many countries, individuals with disabilities have lower employment outcomes: 80% of 15-to-64-year-olds in Australia are employed, compared with only 48% of those with disabilities.
“It’s empowering students to be independent learners and to engage with the world. Because in the workplace, you're not going to have a note taker. If you can't develop that capacity using assistive technology, then your opportunities to get or sustain commensurate employment are much lower,” he says.
But improving educational, economic, and social outcomes for students with disabilities will take time. Gartner hopes to see the impacts of this work in the next five years as students graduate and enter the working world. Underlying the success of this systemic change is a shift in what society believes individuals with differing abilities can do.
“That's actually the biggest challenge: shifting community expectations and attitudes,” says Gartner. “Reiterating that people with disabilities actually want the same opportunities to participate in the workforce and in the community.”
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