Interview: Trevor Allan
Pathways14 themes are inclusive, innovative and ingenuity, can you tell us about your experience studying at university and if any of these themes relate, negatively or positively, to that time?
When I went to university in the early 70s, disability access wasn't even an afterthought. The prevailing philosophy was that everyone did the same thing and that was a fair way of sorting out the successes from the failures. Adjustments or changes to the standard way of doing things was by grace and favour from the academics, and very rarely granted. It was only in very obvious cases like a blind person needing braille that changes were made, and even then they were often refused. This was compounded by the fact that most courses ran for 12 months and were solely assessed on the results of one major formal written exam at the end of the year. There was no legislation guaranteeing access rights and many people, especially those with metal illness or invisible disabilities, were simply failed and disappeared. Most often, people didn't even ask questions about sensible changes, let alone come up with any answers.
You’ve been involved in the Disability Sector in Higher Education for longer than a lot of our students have been alive, how have you seen it change over this time?
Probably the biggest change has been the movement into a rights-based model of access since the introduction of Anti-discrimination legislation, starting with the State-based legislation in the 80s, and culminating in the introduction of the DDA in 1992. This has meant that people with disabilities have the right to access education, and the opportunity to sue educational institutions if those rights are denied. This has meant many more people with disabilities pursuing their educational goals and succeeding, and this in turn has shown may academics that, far from undermining standards and outcomes, people with disabilities have enhanced the educational experiences of every student. Attitudes have changed dramatically, and while we still have a long way to go until we reach the goal of universal accessibility, we have come a long way. Even after the introduction of the DDA, we frequently had to fight, argue, threaten and sometimes even litigate to get very basic adjustments like electronic texts and exams for people with vision impairments. The role of the Disability practitioner has changed too. They are treated more as professionals now, rather than "Who do the hell do you think YOU are? trying to tell me what I can and can't do with MY course!"
What has kept you in the sector for so long? Where does your passion come from?
I have always had a passion for education and the opportunities that it brings for individuals and society, and I was brought up to believe in fairness and social justice. My own experience with both education and disability initially came together in a niche that I didn't know existed and I have loved using my knowledge, skills and experience to make a difference in people's lives. My parents were not well educated, my mother finished school at the end of primary school, and my father never had any formal schooling. He was managing a dairy farm on his own when he was 12 years old, but he learnt the basics of reading and writing, and he was determined that his children would never be held back by the lack of an education like he was. My mother spent many years dealing with chronic illness, and spent many years in a wheelchair, so I became familiar with disabilities and the challenges people faced. My particular background in teaching, law, disabilities and writing seemed to come together in the role of RDLO in the 90s and I have had a passion for the sector ever since. Moving into providing services for students and seeing how making relatively simple changes could make a huge difference in people's lives only enhanced that passion. I have also believed in changing attitudes and systems, so that disability access and inclusion is just the normal way of doing things is equally important, so I have been equally committed to education and awareness training for staff as well.
Why are inherent requirements a requirement and how do they support students?
Knowing what knowledge, skills and capabilities all students will be required to demonstrate as part of their course is very important. Inherent requirements are those things that are essential or necessary to meet the criteria for the award of a degree, and will vary from course to course. They are a vital component in the process of determining whether an adjustment is reasonable or not. For example, sometimes a student may only need to know what to do, and someone else could physically perform the task. In other instances, the student must be able to perform the task themselves, with adjustments if necessary. A medical researcher may need to know how to analyse and interpret the results of blood samples, but does not need to collect the blood themselves. A Nurse, however, would need to be able to collect blood samples from patients as part of their essential duties.
If we don't know what requirements are inherent or essential, we are missing out on critical information in making a decision about what is appropriate, so we could either deny access to people unfairly, or perhaps allow people to be qualified, when in fact they may be missing out essential knowledge and skills that place themselves and others at risk.
Often Disability Practitioner’s may have difficulty working flexible placements, can you clarify if fulltime placements are an inherent requirement of courses?
Flexible placements is a vexed issue with many academics, students and disability practitioners. can understand the reluctance of academics to allow more flexible placements, since they have to arrange them for many hundreds of students every semester, and changes make it much more difficult. However, this is where rights=based legislation comes in. In most cases, if flexible placements are required by a student with a disability, the law requires that it it is accommodated. Many areas that have insisted on FT placements actually don't have an inherent requirement to do so. A good rule of thumb is that if a person can work part time in a particular career, then there is nothing inherent in the position that requires full time, so there is nothing inherent in the role of the placement that requires full time.
What do you see being some of the big challenges facing students and disability support staff over the next 20+ years?
20+ years is a long time to predict. It seems like the last 25 years has passed in the blink of an eye! However, a couple of predictions about challenges are the risk of creeping complacency and reliance on technology to solve all access problems. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of technology and its role in enhancing access, inclusion and removing barriers, but as many people also know, the biggest barrier to access is often people's attitudes and understanding of issues, which is not easily addressed by technology. I also believe that it is time for a greater commitment from government and society to ensuring equitable access to education for everyone. The introduction of the NDIS will have profound effects on access to education for people with disabilities, and will be very positive if introduced properly. However, I am concerned that the NDIS will be used as an excuse for governments in particular to pull back more and more from funding disabilities using the NDIS as an excuse, potentially opening up more and more gaps that people can fall through.
I believe that it is important that Disability practitioners and people with disabilities combine in a concerted campaign to push for adequate funding of disability services in further education, the establishment of resourcing and staffing standards and the development of appropriate policies and practices so that there is less variability in the experiences of students and staff from one institution to another.