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Critical Conversations: Disclosing disability in higher education. What’s in it for the student?

This is one of a number of Critical Conversations ADCET, in partnership with the NDCO program, will host.

In July 2021, researchers Tim Pitman, Matt Brett and Katie Ellis published their paper: Three decades of misrecognition: defining people with disability in Australian higher education policy, which argues that ‘in the context of higher education, people with disability are subjected to both cultural and economic injustices, which causes tension in how students are supported, both by high-level policy and institutional practice.’ The paper explores these injustices through the lens of three stages of ‘development of Australian higher education equity policy across three decades of higher education disability policy’, providing ‘insights into how people with disability have been categorised, classified and counted in higher education and the implications this has for how they are supported.’ The paper offers possible remedies through discussion of alternative models of disability in policy and practice and an analysis of the recognition-redistribution dilemma highlighting ‘how policies and processes put in place to support people with disability in higher education have had both intended and unintended outcomes.’

Key points of interest from the discussion included:

  • Australian higher education institutions ask students with disability to identify not only that they have disability, but the ‘category’ of disability and whether or not they need support.
  • The disability categories used are not fit for purpose and it is not clear whether the data being collected have value, in terms of how they advance social understandings of disability.
  • Disability support staff understand and advocate for the need to focus on functional support, not disability definitions, but the policy and reporting environment does not reflect this need.
  • Higher education institutions should only collect information from people with disability if it is needed to support the person specifically, or if it can be used to improve support more widely for people with disability.

This critical conversation with the authors explored the practical recommendations the paper offers for current higher education policy and practice.

ADCET is hosted by the University of Tasmania