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Disability Practice in the Spotlight

New Zealand COVID-19 challenges and opportunities

Photo of Pauline Melham
Pauline Melham

When COVID-19 hit, New Zealand moved very quickly to a strict level of restrictions aimed at quashing the virus before it could spread. The restrictions affected every part of life, including tertiary students in universities and polytechnics (similar to Australia’s TAFEs).

Pauline Melham, Manager of Disability Services at Ara Institute of Canterbury, can vividly recall the day her country went into lockdown.

“Institutions literally had two days to decide what on earth they were going to do about [lockdown],” Pauline said.

Her workplace and most others brought the holidays forward so students were immediately on holidays from the day lockdown began, and the Easter break was lengthened. From then on, they commenced online learning - but it didn’t work for everybody.

Pauline said some students with disability enjoyed the experience and found they could easily get on with work. But others weren’t able to cope, and struggled with the lack of group collaboration, motivation and keeping up with reading and other work. For some, Zoom meetings caused stress and anxiety. In the end, she said, a number of students withdrew under COVID-19 regulations, meaning they won’t get penalised and can come back. Online learning also threw the digital divide into sharp relief.

“We’ve got a lot of students in low socioeconomic status, we found not all students had computers or something they could learn online with. So we tried desperately once we hit level 3 to get computers out to students who needed them so they could do some work.”

Now, with students ­­­­returning to campus, she has found that many have fallen behind in their work, with some of the practical courses like hospitality and trades trying to push students through at double time.

“It’s making it quite difficult for a number of our students,” Pauline said.

In response, Pauline and her department are delivering as much support as possible. During the lockdown, learning advisors spoke to students via Zoom, either one-on-one or with their tutor, and put notetakers in place even for online sessions. Overall, Pauline said the state of disability support in her institution is adequate, although there is always room for improvement.

Students have access to notetakers and general study skills support from learning services. There is also access to adjustments for exams. Pauline’s department – which consists of herself and one other full-time colleague – is currently attempting to get students more interested in assistive technology.

Comparing the Kiwi uptake to her 18 years spent working in tertiary institutions in the UK, she said services weren’t quite on the same level, but were heading in the right direction. Some polytechnics in New Zealand have specific staff who work only with assistive technology – but Pauline stressed the majority do not, and the responsibility falls to the small disability services team.

“It’s just not possible to diversify into everything which is a real shame because I think the technology is quite important and is something I’m trying to push, because we need someone who can sit down with students and say ‘oh it didn’t work, let me have a look, this is what you need to do, let me give you another lesson’,” she said.

She added that extra staff would allow her department to start focusing on inclusive education, rather than just meeting individual needs. Also on her wish list is a better funding model, with funding attached to individual students to fund the support they need. She’d also like to see funding able to be allocated to help people manage the costs of diagnostic testing for conditions like autism, dyslexia and ADHD.

Pauline, who is herself blind, knows what it feels like to have to access support from a university.

“Because I’m a disabled person myself, I went through university and received support. Disability support was quite new, certainly from an institutional perspective, when I was going through in the early 90s," she explained.

Her university did get a paid disability advisor in the mid-90s, and she received some support from the department, but it looked nothing like the sort of help students get nowadays, as Pauline recalled.

“For exams, you had to take your own laptop and quite often I had to cart my own printer to the exam to print it as well.”

One year, she was unable to print her exam when the university changed from Word Perfect to Microsoft Word without telling her – and staff expected her to have asked the question before the exam.

“I think you had to be a lot more independent in those days, you had to be able to go and advocate for yourself,” she said.

“We didn’t have things like individual adjustments or education plans. I would go up to my lecturer, every single one and say ‘hello, I’m Pauline, I’m blind, I need you to do this.’ You learned to do it and if you didn’t, you struggled. Sometimes they were helpful, sometimes not. I wouldn’t want to say I wasn’t well supported, because at the time I think I was, but I think now … it would be a different experience.”

But she said over the years, the sector as a whole has developed a much wider understanding of disability and what disability encompasses. Support for disabilities like autism and dyslexia has grown, she said, as has the role of technology and apps which have acted as gamechangers for those who need them.

The support she received as a student ended up setting her on her current path.

“I was part of our student disability action group and I realised that the thing I enjoyed the most was actually doing student advocacy. In the end, I worked on getting into that area.”

The New Zealand sector is small, but to supplement that Pauline keeps connected to colleagues across the Tasman via the Austed email list.

“It’s about keeping yourself professional, knowing you’re up to date with practise, and it’s about not being isolated,” she explained.

She has also visited our shores for a Pathways conference and said it was “life changing”.

“I’m dying to get over to another Pathways conference,” she said, adding she is following the news about this year’s virtual event.

She also enjoys joining ADCET webinars, especially the technical ones about tools like Glean and Audio Notetaker, with webinars providing a virtual way of connecting without having to travel or delve into department funding.

It all helps reinforce her passion for the sector and her role in it.

“I came into this role to support people with disabilities to realise their potential, and to go out there and be able to find jobs, to have the qualifications that would help them to go get a job, because it is so hard if you have a disability to get work,” Pauline said.

“What we find is the more qualified you are, the more likely you are as a disabled person to get a job. It’s being able to give students those opportunities.”

Written by: Danielle Kutchel

September 2020