My Transition from High School to University: What made my Journey Successful?
My name is Breanna Medcalfe and I am 19 years old, living on the Sunny (well mostly!) Sunshine Coast. I live with a C1/C2 incomplete spinal-cord injury from birth, which means I am quadriplegic having limited muscle movement from my neck down to my toes. For mobility, I use a motorised wheelchair and rely on a lot of support for every day physical tasks, and in my studies. The help I need for study involves scribing my assignments and exams, helping organise my notes, and support for getting around campus, as well as assistance with note taking in class. I graduated from Year 12 at the end of 2019 and am now in my second year of studying a Bachelor of Laws, part time, and am loving it!
My experience of transition from high school to university was mostly positive. For me, the ball started rolling when my mum and I attended the ‘open day’ at our local university, in Year 11. After I had decided which degree I wanted to study, we began the process of transition in term two of my last year at school. We approached AccessAbility Services at the University, to find out more about the support available to me, and the accessibility for my wheelchair around campus. This involved several meetings between the Manager of AccessAbility Services, my mum, and myself. We discussed what equipment I would need on campus, what support I may require, access around the campus, study plans, and formulating what they call a ‘Learning Access Plan’ (LAP). Starting this process so early in the final year of school was highly beneficial, as the process was not rushed and gave the University time to ensure the level of assistance I needed was ready to be put in place once I had officially enrolled. I even had a few private tours of the campus, so on that first day, whilst all other new students were wandering around aimlessly trying to find classes, I knew exactly where I was going!
My Case Manager at school and AccessAbility Services were more than willing to meet together towards the end of Year 12, to discuss what support I had in place for school, what was currently working well, and how the University could use this knowledge for the support I needed in the next stage of my education. This saved my mum and I a lot of stress and time.
Education Queensland provide Occupational Therapy and Physiotherapy to students in the school system. Unfortunately, this is not the case at university and is a barrier for someone who has high physical and personal care needs, such as myself. When it came to the personal care side of my needs, unfortunately, there was limited communication between Education Queensland and the University, which meant it was left up to us to work out what needed to be done.
In the space of limited communication, when discussing access and support around the campus from a therapist point of view, Education Queensland would not allow their Occupational Therapist (who had been working with me for several years at school) to visit the University campus and make recommendations on how the University could best support my needs. This placed a lot of extra pressure on my mum and I, as we had to do this ourselves, re-explaining my vast support needs to a private Occupational Therapist (funded by NDIS) and drawing up a new process for personal care; instead of simply transferring the process from school across to the University.
Unfortunately, the line between universities and NDIS funding wasn’t clear. The NDIS don’t cover equipment for use at university, however they do fund a support for assistance on campus outside of the classroom and also an Occupational Therapist if required. My University funded the equipment I required (e.g. hoist and accessible bathroom), and we are very grateful for their understanding and flexibility on this issue.
The ‘Learning Access Plan’ (LAP) mentioned earlier, was co-written with myself and an ‘Ability Advisor’ from AccessAbility Services. My LAP stipulates the extra support I require in class, for my assessments, and for my exams. We, as students, are then expected to send our LAP to our tutors each semester, to ensure they are aware of our support requirements. So far, this process has been very successful for me. My tutors have been understanding and willing to modify exams and provide me with extensions on my assignments. This has helped relieve the stress of the workload, alongside my weekly medical appointments and extra-curricular activities. It was also a great ‘security blanket’ for when I left school, where similar support was provided to me.
The University has been excellent in providing support during classes, including a ‘Participation Assistant’ (PA) who helps me take notes in class, even when I’m unable to attend due to medical appointments or illness. PAs work with students to assist in engaging them with their learning and campus life and may provide assistance in areas such as:
- Planning for assessments and time management
- Strategies for applying knowledge, academic content and facilitating learning
- Implementing strategies for self-management
- Exam preparation and revision/study skills
- Optimising use of academic resources
- Taking notes during classes, fieldwork, or site visits
- Research assistance
- Laboratory/fieldwork assistance, e.g. assisting with tasks requiring fine motor skills
- Mobility assistance, e.g. carrying books and equipment, adjusting desks and other resources and/or
- Campus orientation and visual study assistance for students with visual impairment
PAs do not provide assistance in the home, tutoring, lifting the student, personal care (including during breaks or lunch), personal hygiene, or transport. This will need to be sourced by the student at their own expense or through their NDIS funding (if applicable).
My tutors have been supportive and are prompt at replying to emails, which is especially helpful when an urgent support need pops up, or if I require a sudden extension for an assignment or exam. I feel like I am not just a number, due to the smaller cohort and class sizes.
My first placement at University was a breeze. I was quite nervous, as I chose not to have a support person with me, and didn’t quite know what to expect. I’m so grateful to my course co-ordinator, who put me in touch with the Placement Manager at the Legal Centre we were attending, who arranged a walk-through of the offices. They ensured my wheelchair could access the rooms and explained what we would be doing on placement. Because I went to visit them in person, they were accommodating and made some adjustments to the learning materials so I wouldn’t need to stress about keeping up with note taking. This was such a positive experience in my first year of university and is where I met one of my closest friends.
It is a huge step for someone with a disability, who has come from the security bubble of school, to transition to higher education where the support is still provided but is led by the student. My experience has been vastly positive, and I hope the checklist below might help other students feel confident when transitioning from high school to university.
Breanna’s Checklist for Transition To University……
- Consider small universities who have smaller classes and cohort sizes, as this often leads to a more personalised experience – bigger isn’t always better
- Start the process of transition and contact the university early – this saves for a rushed enrolment and transition
- Stick up for yourself and be upfront with the university as to what you need – don’t be afraid to fight for assistance if this is what you need to achieve your academic goals, there is no such thing as ‘too much support’
- Attend orientation and club events – these are a great way to meet people
- Make the most of the information sessions and workshops – especially in your first semester
- Discuss potential placements with the university to determine if they will cover your support needs
When enquiring/touring the campus I suggest you look out for, and ask about, the following:
- Does the university record lectures and/or tutorials to upload online – this means you can watch/re-watch at home and relieves some of the pressure of missing important notes in classes
- How will you navigate the campus in wet weather
- Transport to and from campus – access to parking and taxi/bus stands
- Table height in class and lecture rooms and automatic doors (for wheelchairs)
- Accessing classrooms
- Lift access
- Emergency Evacuation Plans (particularly personal plans for those with physical disabilities, etc.)
- Access to ‘quiet rooms’ – this is particularly helpful for those who use dictation software and some universities may provide use of dictation equipment
Published: July 2021.