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Supporting International Students with Disability

There are many considerations for post-secondary education providers with enrolled international students, as supporting international students with disability may raise a number of issues.

The DDA and Migration Act

Firstly, international students who have a disability are entitled to the same protections as domestic students under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) as the Act is silent on the issue of residence or citizenship.  The process for the Disability Service and International Students Office supporting international students with disability is a matter for individual institutions as this is also not addressed in the Migration Act.  While some universities have addressed this overtly and have protocols in place, the majority support international students with a disability on an as needs basis, without clarifying the role of each service.

In the case of some institutions, discussion has occurred around whether the International Students Office is responsible for any costs related to accommodations rather than the funding allocated for domestic students who have a disability. These are issues that should be clarified at the institutional level.

Finally, the DDA is subservient to the Migration Act (See Section 52) and education and training institutions – and more particularly the International Students Office - must be alert to any changes to the Migration Act that might affect recruitment of students who have a disability.

International Students who are Deaf and use Sign Language

There are a number of issues to consider in the support of students who are Deaf and who use sign language and also from non-English speaking countries. Australian universities require proficiency in academic English. Institutions are unlikely to support the translation of content into languages other than English or Auslan. That being said, this issue has arisen a number of times in the training sector and in international high schools over the past decade and bears consideration.

Some of these students may derive benefit from written material translated into their first language, though this is not common practice due to considerations of academic integrity.  Some people who are Deaf have varying degrees of proficiency in written language and may prefer information translated into sign language. However, it is important to realise that sign language is not universal. Like spoken languages, sign language is specific and unique to each country although there are often similarities. For example, Auslan, New Zealand Sign Language and British Sign Language are very similar. Indeed, Auslan has different dialects and varying signs for the same word across Australia.

Where the student who is Deaf is a recently arrived humanitarian entrant the institution’s English Language Services (if available) need to work with the Disability Advisers on solutions.  However, in the case of international students, the recruiters – and the students themselves – must be fully apprised of the implications before committing to enrolment.  The education or training provider can then choose to work on solutions with the student or inform the student that they are unable to meet their needs.  In some circumstances institutions may need to inform the student that they are unable to meet their support needs or formally advise of concerns regarding their capacity to undertake the course of study. Ideally this should occur before an enrolment offer is made.

Variations to Visa Conditions

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has no firm public policy on variations to visa conditions, preferring to treat each application on its individual merits.  The one exception where the Department is steadfast in its unwillingness to vary visa conditions is on the issue of hours the holder of a student visa is allowed to work, stating that limiting the number of hours of work upholds the integrity of the migration process as well as ensures the student has the capacity to complete their study in the time they have negotiated. 

One condition of most international student visas is that students are expected to undertake a full-time study load.  However, on some occasions a successful case has been made - at the time of visa application - for part time study and an extended study period where the student has been unable to study full-time because of disability and that the increased non-contact time was not going to be used for working for wages.

Visa Extensions to Accommodate Disability

Extensions to visas are variations that will be considered on their individual merit.  The Department is clear that the onus is on the education or training provider to recruit students who are capable of meeting the inherent requirements and intellectual rigour of the course.  Visa extensions are less likely for students who consistently fail to complete or who do not pass multiple subjects.  However, there are some instances of visa extensions that are exceptions to the usual.

In 2015, one Australian university had a student who was diagnosed with a learning disability after commencing their course of study.  The Disability Office was happy to negotiate reasonable adjustments such as provision of assistive technology and extensions and time allowances on exams.  However, the student was still struggling and in order to achieve the results of which he was capable, needed to reduce his overall study load to part time, thus requiring an extension to his visa.

In this case, and in the experience of other universities where this issue has arisen, the Disability Office has considered the student’s documents relating to their disability, such as assessments and diagnoses as they would with any student with a disability.  Based on this documentation, the Disability Adviser has made an assessment and recommendation and provided a letter of support.  The application for a visa extension was then handled by the student and the International Students office.  Experience has shown that where adequate evidence is provided to support the application for extension (or granting of another visa); the application is extremely unlikely to be refused where the student’s request is deemed to be genuine. 

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection and migration lawyers highly recommend that the student be proactive in this process and that an application for a visa extension must be made with adequate time before the expiry date on the original visa.  Last minute applications will not be viewed kindly.

Australia Award Students

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade administers the Australia Awards program which is part of the Australian Government’s international aid program.  The Program provides scholarships for students from developing countries to undertake higher education in Australia.  The Australia Awards program includes a Disability program to support recipients with disabilities, and provides funding for additional support.  Institutions hosting Australia Awards students with disabilities liaise with the Department regarding the provision of services which can include daily living assistance.

Details of the program can be found in section 9 of the Australia Awards Handbook This link will take you away from ADCET

Disability Services and International Students Services – Working Together

In many cases, International Students Offices have been insistent on a number of factors, most especially the number of units or hours a student must be studying.  In the cases of students needing extensions to visas or in the recruitment of students whose disabilities require support beyond what could be considered reasonable adjustments, the best recommendation would be to ensure that the two services work together.  The Disability Service may need to take the initiative in providing some disability awareness training for the International Students staff and recruiters and protocols may need to be developed between the two services.  Similarly, the Disability Service having a better understanding of the constraints under which the International Students staff work can also aid in ensuring that supports and documentation meet their needs.  In institutions where this has been the case, on the rare occasions where issues arise with international students who have a disability, reasonable adjustments have progressed smoothly.