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Specific Learning Disability and the Education Context in Australia

The Tertiary Education Context

The Australian tertiary education sector has for the past twenty years, taken both a proactive and responsible approach to the issue of recognising and supporting specific learning disability in an educational context. The tertiary education sector openly acknowledged specific learning disabilities when the federal government introduced the Australian Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and included in its definition of disability ‘a disorder or malfunction that results in the person learning differently from a person without the disorder or malfunction’ The tertiary education sector responded to the definition of disability by interpreting the legislation to mean that people with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, were eligible for academic assistance through the organisations disability support programs.

Through this acknowledgement and the subsequent practice introduced to support students with specific learning disabilities, the Technical and Further Education (TAFE) and Higher Education sectors in Australia have pioneered our learning in the area of supporting students with specific learning disabilities to both participate in, and achieve success within the educational environment.

As a result an informal body of knowledge specific to the Australian tertiary education context has evolved over the past twenty years. This body of knowledge draws from the international experience and literature and has at its core, the practice principles essential to facilitating successful outcomes for students with specific learning disabilities. Through this practice wisdom, students presenting with indicators of specific learning disability at both the TAFE and higher education level are guided to understand their learning differences, are assisted through the process of diagnosis where necessary and are provided reasonable adjustments to facilitate participation in their chosen studies.

The Primary and Secondary Education Context

In Australia, within compulsory education (primary and secondary) the concept of specific learning disability has not been widely understood and children and young people with specific learning disability have not been supported through additional funding for education support strategies. Teachers within the primary and secondary education system are rarely informed within their pre-service training about specific learning disability and most are not provided the skills to feel equipped with strategies to support students presenting with indicators of an SpLD when they first enter the teaching profession. This is only recently beginning to change through national inquiries and reviews that have addressed the teaching of literacy within the Australian literacy curriculum, the inclusion of explicit methods for the teaching of reading to be introduced within pre-service teacher training and revised graduate teacher standards. However, it will be many years before the tertiary education sector will experience the impact of the recent changes across primary and secondary education. Young people, early school leavers and adults with learning difficulties will continue to present to Vocational Education and Training and Universities without a formal diagnosis and without a comprehensive understanding of why they experience learning difficulties or how their specific difficulties can be addressed. As a result, most will continue to present with feelings of academic inadequacy along with a sense of shame and embarrassment about their learning difficulties.