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The rights of students with disability and part time placements

In all situations where reasonable adjustments are made, practitioners agree that inherent requirement statements and/or program descriptions that are clear and that inform students of requirements, before they start, are of benefit.  

More students with disabilities than ever before are undertaking studies that require placements in industry.  These placements allow students to gain experience in a practical setting and to demonstrate professional competence as well as meet professional registration standards.  In some cases requests are made to undertake the placement on a part time basis and there is some confusion regarding the rights of students with disabilities to engage in part time placements.  Discussion among disability practitioners in the higher education and training sector shows that in many instances inaccurate information has been provided as to how to negotiate this practice - and even whether it should be allowed at all.

In teaching and health (including nursing and midwifery), the number of hours of practical placement is determined as part of the education institution’s accreditation process.  As part of the accreditation process to deliver a qualification, the number of hours of placement in a practical setting, as well as assessment methodology, is detailed and data is provided as part of the reaccreditation process.  Institutions are only bound by the minimum number of hours detailed in their accreditation but can, and some do, exceed this number of hours.  Professional registration is not dependent upon a set number of hours of practical experience that are undertaken as part of a qualification.

In training qualifications there is a growing move toward stipulated hours of practical placement required to demonstrate competency.  For instance, the Certificate 3 in Disability does not currently require a practical placement in order to demonstrate competency, but many Registered Training Organisations have customarily required 120 hours of work in a professional setting.  From 2016, the new Certificate 3 in Individual Support will require a 120 hour placement in order to complete the qualification.

The difficulty for some programs is where a student’s Access Plan requires that a student study/work on a part time basis.  This presents a number of questions and some resistance for the following reasons:

  • The unwillingness of host institutions to take a student over an extended period because of
    • Extended disruption to their workplace
    • Overlap with students wanting to undertake placements in a subsequent study period
    • Their view of fitness to practice
    • Unreasonableness of time it would take to complete the practicum
    • Complaints by the hosting school and the University about the complexity of organising such an accommodation
  • The view of academic staff who believe that a student should be able to complete their placement within in a certain period of time in order to demonstrate fitness to practice
  • The possibility or likelihood the assessment for the practical placement will need be carried over into a new assessment period
  • The concern that for secondary teaching students the teaching in a specialty area will be disrupted if they do not have continuity over the week.
  • The (incorrect) belief that registration requirements require that students complete their placement (and in some cases the qualification) in a set amount of time

Discussion with a legal practitioner has raised two issues: 

Firstly, it is the responsibility for the Institution to ensure the student has met the requirements for the qualification the Institution is accredited to deliver, not their fitness to practice after they have completed the course requirements.  For instance, a student’s desire for a teaching qualification may be so that they can better home school their children rather than practice in a busy school.  Similar arguments have been made for students in courses for nursing, social work, psychology, counselling, and disability work and so on.  The educational institutions’ responsibility is to ensure that the students have met the course requirements.  It is the registration organisations’ responsibility to assess whether or not the student has met the registration requirements.

Secondly, undertaking a placement on a part time basis would most definitely be considered a Reasonable Adjustment for the purposes of the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and Disability Standards for Education (2005) if the student’s disability warranted it.

The key issue then becomes one of negotiating a part time placement with a host institution.  While there can be resistance from many placement providers, the education or training provider should have a sufficient pool of host bodies that can be drawn upon to find an appropriate placement location.  The most complex of negotiations around part time placements appears to be for secondary teaching students, where a single lesson might be held each day of the week for a specialist subject and having a student teacher in class for only some of these days might be disruptive to learning and meeting curriculum requirements.

Practitioners report that the greatest success has been achieved where the student has been party to negotiations with the supervising teacher as to how a part time placement in the secondary school setting might be managed.  In some classes, instruction has occurred on the days the student teacher was present, with student-directed research conducted on days when they were not.  Where a student can undertake the placement four days each week, this is often sufficient to meet the class requirements as many classes only operate on four of five days each week.  In some placements a student has been supervised by a teacher who also only works part time, and timetables have been able to be matched.  Progress has been made in this area in recent years, with fourteen universities now reporting capacity provide part-time teaching placements where required as a disability related adjustment, while three currently don't; though two of those report that they have made some adjustment such as afternoons off, unofficial reductions in days and so on.

With nursing and social work students, part time placements appear to be easier to negotiate, though some practitioners report reluctance because of the constant rotation of students through professional settings and the impact it may have on the ability of the host to accommodate a full roster of students on the next rotation.

In the training setting, where students are more likely to need to source their own placement venue, greater flexibility and less resistance has been found, with some online students who work full time having completed placement requirements one day each weekend until the placement hours requirement has been met.  No training package requires that practical placements be completed within a certain timeframe at this time.

The final point of contention is how to assess a student whose part time placement overlaps a new assessment period.  To disadvantage a student with a disability because of this issue would be a clear breach of the Disability Standards for Education (2005) and so the higher education or training institution should have policies and standardised procedures in place to ensure that assessment and recording of results proceeds smoothly.

Having detailed Program descriptions available to students before they commence study will assist them in identifying the need for reasonable adjustments.  Teaching staff should have an understanding of the inherent requirements of their program in order to negotiate reasonable adjustments without compromising academic standards.

Recommended processes for negotiating part time placements

Variations to placement hours can generally be negotiated with careful planning.  One disability professional suggested that students should liaise with the Disabilities Service and placement staff as far in advance as possible, preferably a semester in advance, to discuss their needs.  Early planning is essential if a student requires assistive technology as negotiations may need to occur with computing security teams.  This would be particularly important when assistive technology software needs to be installed on host institutions’ computers or the student’s own technology needs to be able to be connected to the host institution’s network.

The student, Disability Service and academic staff should meet to discuss how the placement will be set up and contingency plans for if the student is unwell.  The Disability Service may provide education/training to staff in the work placement if deemed necessary, or facilitate another external provider to do this training. This planning allows for the setup of computer equipment, engagement of Auslan interpreters, guidance on vision impairment or development of an action plan for medical situations.

Hours can be varied in the following ways:

  • Commencement of the placement a few weeks early, over the semester break
  • Varying work days and spread of hours to reduce fatigue
  • Considering any tasks that can be completed remotely from home using technology options such as Skype, DropBox, Google Docs and so on. This works well for Social Work students who are working on policy for example, but is not an option for education placements
  • Continuing the placement for additional weeks if need 
  • Recording results/withheld on the transcript until the placement is finalised

Finally, legal opinion[1] on this issue reiterates that a part time placement would be considered a reasonable adjustment where the adjustment to part time was directly related to the student’s disability.  A student requesting a part time placement for lifestyle reasons would be granted such an adjustment at the discretion of the education or training institution, though education and training providers should be aware of the implication of Carers Recognition legislation in their jurisdiction if a request is made on the grounds of carer responsibilities.

Professional Registration Bodies

[1] Danny Carroll LLB, Disability Rights Advocacy Service