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Disability Practice in the Spotlight

Making University Options a Reality through Virtual Reality

David Swayn

David Swayn

What would you achieve if you thought you only had 12 months in your role?  When David Swayn became the NDCO with Steps Group Australia a year ago,  he understood funding for the role was only guaranteed for this long, so he set out to do as much as he could to make a positive difference for people with disability transitioning to tertiary education, and then on to graduate employment.  What he has achieved in this time is impressive.  And the good news is that with a funding extension David is still here, and is looking forward to what he can continue to do in the sector.

David is a big believer in the importance of lifelong learning, and that more people with disability need to have access to these opportunities.  “It’s not only a way to help everyone live to their potential, but when people don’t have the chance to further their study there is a mispotential and lost opportunity for their community and society in general”.

As a former manager of a Disability Employment Service office David also knows that employment and education outcomes are intertwined.  The flow on effects of improving education not only increase the likelihood of employment, but also increase the chances of leadership opportunities which can be used to promote access and inclusion for others with disability. 

“Most people go to University to get a better job, but we are doing people a disservice if we only get them into tertiary education, and then do nothing at the end of their studies to help them with gaining employment”.  Therefore one of things that David is pleased about being involved in is a Uni Specialist Employment Partnerships pilot program to connect graduates with disability with employment opportunities.  This embeds a disability employment consultant on university campuses to work directly with students prior to graduation to assist them find sustainable graduate employment.  The program also involves providing a website with relevant information for students, employers, disability service providers and university careers and equity teams.

An in-VR extract of the lecture theatre scene, with the students pouring in from the top right of the scene. It is a large lecture theatre with a super imposed screen of the student having a discussion with a staff member.

David is also proud of developing a virtual reality (VR) tool that gives regional young people with disability the ‘look and feel ‘of visiting a university without the daunting prospect of a long journey to get there.  It’s a way of using the latest technology to give potential students an interactive experience that gives them information on what James Cook University in Cairns looks like, the supports available, and hear from students who are doing well.

The VR experience is five minutes long. People have the option to pause whenever they want to, allowing them to stop all motion and sound and simply take in their surroundings for as long as they want, just as if they were actually there in real life.  It includes a look around outside, and then a look in the library, café, a tutorial room, and into a lecture theatre.  As the real footage was filmed during semester it contains real students in the surroundings.  For example the lecture theatre experience includes students coming through the door and finding their places ready for the lecture to begin.

 A staff member from the university wearing a Virtual Reality headset 

The VR includes a Disability Adviser explaining the types of support and assistance available, the numbers of students with disability and the different types of disability that students have while the user is looking around the campus. The VR also features three current students who share their stories about what they are studying, encouragement to consider university study as an option, and how it can be a positive experience.  One of the featured students demonstrates sharing information about Aspergers with a staff member to build awareness and understanding of neurodiversity.  “We wanted people to hear stories directly from other students, so it wasn’t just information from the uni” explained David.

While the VR has the pause function and is subtitled, he believes accessibility could be improved by also having the option of Auslan commentary and scripted audio descriptions.

The VR tool is a hit at regional career expos where David has lines of students wanting to give it a try.  It provides an interactive and non-confrontational way to share information, and generates lots of questions about university, and broader conversations about study and disability.  “Everyone enjoys the experience and learns something” said David. “It might even be discovering why it’s important not to pat the guide dog that one of our students with disability in the virtual experience uses”. 

VR kits are loaned out free of charge by the NDCO to regional schools or organisations who want to promote tertiary education to people with disability.

A still flattened shot from within the Virtual Reality experience of student Kaleb sitting in a library discussing how he likes the wide open space

David came up with the idea for the VR from research on the use of this technology as a training tool for people with ASD.  “And when no-one told me that creating one for uni orientation was a silly idea, then I just got on with doing it” said David.  “Of course, projects like this don’t just happen in isolation – we had fantastic project management from enVizion in Cairns - an Indigenous owned and operated organisation, and production from ThinkVR who were both very attentive to my many requests for the product alongside support from staff at JCU.”

David believes that this is not just a tool for rural and remote students. Many people with ASD have difficulties with new environments and this can get in the way of their transition to university.  “The inclusion of the pause feature can help overcome this challenge and hopefully alleviate some anxiety about going to University for the first time, as it will have been done in an easily stoppable environment first”.

As someone who embraces the use of technology in his working life, David knows that it is important to getting away from it when not at work.  He’s helped in this endeavour by having a country property to retreat to that is out of phone and internet range. 

If you want more information on either of these great two initiatives check out the Steps NDCO website or follow NDCO QLD on Facebook.  For more information about University Specialist Employment Partnerships, visit

Student Kaleb walks on a walkway that is between a rainforest setting at university.
Jennea stands in the library with NDCO David and Guide Dog Oliver (GDO).