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Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training
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Business NOT as usual

Many people around the world have had to alter their life in some substantial way in the past few weeks. For Disability Practitioners within the Tertiary Education sector change has been swift and significant. Institutions have had to rapidly move learning online across our whole education system. Dedicated Disability Practitioners across the nation, and beyond, have been working tirelessly to make sure access for people with disability can be sustained from the students’ own home.

In an effort to support their colleagues, ADCET and the National Disability Coordination Officer (NDCO) program have introduced a weekly online catchup via Zoom to allow for collegial support and information sharing. The first, an hour across a Wednesday lunch time brought together 96 Disability and Equity Practitioners from across Australia and New Zealand. It was interesting to experience how technologies can bring us all together.

In such challenging times we need to learn to find a new normal in the way we do business. The online forum began by providing opportunity for a check in. Attendees were asked to state one word to describe how they were feeling with the shift. A range of emotions were expressed and ranged from challenged and tired, to invigorated. Many have experienced the full gamut at some point. The conversations highlighted the importance of self-care in these difficult times. Feedback suggests the forum provides a much-appreciated opportunity to feel a sense of community and shared experience.

The conversation shifted to identifying what supports were needed, problems to be solved and sharing of workable solutions. Themes that arose included:

  • accessible technologies
  • getting accessible technologies where they need to be
  • providing supports from a safe social distance
  • how to support mental health for a cohort who generally prefer stability to thrive
  • supporting teaching teams in their learning of accessible technologies
  • how to provide reasonable adjustment to assessment in the online world

Colleagues shared tips on what was working for the students they work with and the chat box got a workout with resource links being shared and technologies being compared.

Leading into the next forum of approximately 45 colleagues, a registration survey assisted to focus the discussion. Responses generally fell into two streams; supporting students with disability and supporting teaching staff with assistive technologies (particularly for Deaf and hard of hearing students) and emotional support provision.

In an effort to ensure that every participant had the opportunity for rich discussion, the Zoom break out rooms allowed groups of 10 or so to discuss the issues relevant to them. A strong theme of methods for supporting students whom require interpreters, note takers, and captioning arose. There was some valuable knowledge and lived experience in the rooms.  An enormous amount of knowledge was shared which will benefit a huge number of students across the country.

There were discussions that focused on the part that academics play in providing accessible learning and assessment. These discussions delved into the challenges of adding to the academic workload in an already complex area. Accessibility teams discussed the difficulties and successes in the opportunity to provide further professional development in this new online environment. Attendees generously offered to share resources that have been created on the fly to support academics in these pursuits.

Feedback was another hot topic with the concern that the usual “hallway” discussions that bring forward the needs of students and staff are no longer possible. How are we ensuring that need is being recognized and supported? This is a good reminder that checking in with students and staff will be highly important over the coming weeks to prevent people falling through the cracks.

Now, if you are looking for a silver lining in these “unprecedented times” (eye rolling excused at hearing that one again!), forum participants also expressed excitement at the opportunity to shake things up in a system that previously presented so many barriers for people with disability. Never before have we as a society had such an opportunity to level the playing field. With the effort being thrown behind creating possibility for people with disability to independently access education. Being forced to work apart has meant that every learning institution in the country has been required to audit their offering and make sure that it actually works for those using it.

ADCET and the NDCO program have committed to hosting the weekly forum at least for the remainder of April and will continue to meet for an hour each Wednesday at 12pm AEST. Moving forward the discussion will have a weekly focus informed by feedback from the previous session, as well as discussion on relevant listservs. The online forums will continue to provide plenty of opportunity to seek support and information from the group as needed. For more information or to access a Zoom invite please contact jessica.buhne@sydney.edu.au or elicia.ford@sydney.edu.au

Written by Ammi Demanuele, NDCO Eastern Metro Melbourne