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Disability Practice in the Spotlight

University of Sydney – Disability Action Plan 2013-2018 

“If we are to be a university in which the brightest researchers and the most promising students can thrive and realise their full potential, we must ensure that we provide a learning and working environment which is inclusive and accessible to all.”
Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, University of Sydney

dagmar kminiak
Photo: Louise Bannerman and Dagmar Kminiak

How are these noble and worthy sentiments enshrined in daily practice within a tertiary institution? Such was the question pursued in the development of the University of Sydney’s Disability Action Plan (DAP) 2013-2018.  This plan seeks to provide an environment that enables both students and staff with disability to participate in all aspects of the learning, research, administration and life of the University.  The strategies and outcomes are based on a capacity-building strengths based approach, in preference to those that would merely minimise deficits.  It recognises and challenges every unit and staff member to be responsible for enabling access and inclusion. Furthermore it aspires to change the culture away from a reactive complaints-based mechanism to one that is more proactive, consultative and advisory.

Dagmar Kminiak, Manager of Disability Services at the University of Sydney, and Louise Bannerman the DAP Project Implementation Officer share with ADCET the key elements of the success, as well as some of the challenges faced in the development and implementation of their current DAP.

“The previous DAPs focused mostly on infrastructure, however this DAP extends that to focus on culture, as students and staff informed us, there needed to be culture change” says Dagmar.  This includes consideration and commitment to embedding inclusive teaching practices and clear processes for staff with disability.

“We needed to create a culture where people felt comfortable and safe disclosing their disability. Where there is a high level of awareness of disability, and the importance of establishing an equal playing field rather than treating everyone equally” says Louise.  

The plan has six key objectives:

  1. The University incorporates the rights and opportunities of people with disabilities in all policies and planning.
  2. The University of Sydney is a tertiary education provider of choice for all students.
  3. The University is an employer of choice for people with disabilities.
  4. The University’s communication and digital environment is accessible to people with disabilities.
  5. The University provides an accessible built environment to everyone.
  6. The University provides leadership to the community in developing an inclusive Australian society.

The development of the current DAP is underpinned by a strong governance framework and an extensive consultation process.  As well as an over-arching University wide DAP, each faculty has developed and is accountable for the implementation of their own DAP.

A Disability Action Plan Development Group, was established to guide the development of the plan. The development for the DAP had strong support from the VC to develop a plan with achievable actions, timelines, responsibilities and accountabilities across the University.  This top-down approach assisted to validate the necessity and importance of the DAP process.  

The 25 members of the Disability Action Plan Development Group, chaired by a Dean of Faculty, included staff and students with lived experience of disability, representation from faculties, student support, ICT, and infrastructure.  Over a twelve month period this group established the key objectives, through extensive preliminary consultation and benchmarking against United Nations objectives, the National Disability Strategy and other Universities’ Action plans.

These objectives provided a great starting point for the consultations, and the development of faculty based DAPs. Workshops were held in each of the University sixteen faculties, and professional staff. The workshops aimed at:

  • increasing the disability awareness of senior staff, staff supporting students, and staff supporting staff
  • engaging staff in the intent, process and intended outcomes of the DAP
  • exploring what was working well and what could work better
  • providing strategies and templates for each faculty to develop their own action plan
  • establishing University wide responsibility for the DAP

Gaining the commitment from every faculty did have its challenges. “As well as the logistics of finding suitable times, it required a lot of relationship building to develop trust and engagement” said Louise.  “But we wanted the DAP to be relevant to all, so we needed the input from all our stakeholders within the University” said Dagmar.  

“We also knew that many staff with disability felt they hadn’t been heard by the University, so we wanted the opportunity for every staff person to be listened to and have input into the plan” said Louise.

Surveys were sent to all staff and all students for their input into the development of the plan. The themes of cultural change, disclosure and discrimination emerged from this consultation.

A communication strategy to engage both students and staff was implemented and included launching the plan and the utilisation of stories about experiences at the University from both staff and students with disability.

The Senior Executive Group Sub-Committee and a Consultative Committee are now responsible for monitoring the implementation of the DAP. These two committees will meet twice per semester for the duration of the plan. Their responsibilities include: providing a forum for staff and students to raise key issues regarding access and participation; monitoring and assisting the implementation of faculty DAPs; conducting an annual survey of staff and students to measure the culture of inclusivity within the University; and providing quarterly reports to the Senior Executive Group on the progress of implementation of the DAP.

To date the development and implementation of the DAP has achieved a number of successful initiatives including;

  • The development of faculty DAPs
  • External disability audit of University buildings
  • ICT disability audit
  • Development and provision of five specific disability confidence programs for staff (seniors and leaders, HR practitioners, all staff, supervisors and managers and for those supporting students with disability) 
  • Development of disability awareness training manuals to promote and guide staff in inclusive teaching practices
  • An annual disability awareness week in September that includes and promotes disability to the student population and wider community
  • Disability support officers are now based in each campus, rather than only at main campus
  • New HR processes in place to support staff with disability
  • ICT visual access plan to ensure all technology is accessible
  • Systems to allow all lectures to be automatically recorded
  • Trialling units to produce disability competent graduates in Pharmacy

The University is also proud that their DAP has been recognised as best practice by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services, and they have been involved in providing advice on developing Disability Action plans.

However, there are still challenges to face in the implementation of the plan. Dagmar acknowledges that there are different levels of engagement across the University, and she would like to have greater accountability from some areas.  “We also need to continue to challenge cultures and embed inclusive teaching practices across the curriculum”.  Additional emphasis is also required to ensure that the student population becomes as disability aware as possible.

“Whilst there is a mindset shift happening in people’s expectations of people with disability, and their right to participate in education and training, cultural change takes time, and we continue to chip away at it” says Louise.  “But we have a good strong base to build on and develop future DAPs to continue this work”.

Dagmar hopes into the future that the University of Sydney will continue to strive to be a leader in inclusive and innovative universal design practices. “We want our responses to be proactive, driven by consultation rather than complaints. And most importantly we want accessibility to be firmly at the front of people’s minds”. 

To view the University of Sydney Disability Action Plan 2013-2018 go to