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ADCET Webinar: Leveraging students’ voices to strengthen student support

Students with additional needs and/or disabilities may encounter a number of challenges in the structures, timeframes, and processes of the higher education environment. This makes it essential that universities can effectively accommodate students’ diverse strengths and needs, and support them to reach their learning and personal potential.

Research in Australia is highlighting the need for a more student-centred approach in the provision of university support. This webinar drew upon a study of university students’ voices to explore what makes for effective student support and the ways in which it can be enhanced and improved. The findings revealed that effective support goes beyond the tangible; it is not simply accommodating students’ academic needs, but the feeling of personalised support and care students receive, and enabling student agency and empowerment. Support can be perceived as ineffective by students when these positive aspects are lacking or absent. However, the support can often be improved, even with minimal resourcing.

Note: For this webinar, students with additional needs and/or disabilities are considered students whose needs may make them eligible for academic accommodation or accessibility support. This includes not only students who identify as having a disability, but also students with learning difficulties, chronic illness, illness, or difficult personal circumstances which may require support from the university’s student support services. Language around disability is an evolving space and whilst person-first language is used in this webinar, the presenter recognises and supports individual’s personal preferences, including identity-first language. The presenter also recognises that not all students who are typically conflated under the term ‘disability’ will identify as having a disability. The presenter welcomes conversation in this space as we work to increase inclusion across all aspects of our society.  

Audience: This webinar may be of interest to disability practitioners and student support service providers in higher education. It may also be of interest to educators and other higher education staff


Photo of Elizabeth Hitches

Elizabeth Hitches, PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland

In both research and teaching, Elizabeth strives to foster inclusive and equitable learning environments where all students can reach their full academic and personal potential. Elizabeth is a PhD candidate, as well as a research officer and research assistant in both qualitative and quantitative research. Her research interests lie in inclusive education at a national and international level, as well as equity, achievement, and wellbeing for students with disability, chronic health conditions and/or additional accessibility needs. She is also a sessional academic across various universities, teaching inclusive education, the value of diversity, and the need for accessibility and equity. Elizabeth Hitches LinkedIn profile

Questions that were not live answered:

What are some well-received or valued forms of recognition and reward for student representatives?

Student representatives are a valuable means for us to be listening to students’ voices. One example I’ve come across for recognition is a formal letter (with the university letterhead) thanking students for their contribution to the university. In this way students can use this as evidence of their community engagement or volunteering work when applying for future roles. I would love to hear about what others have found effective too, so do feel free to share!

It is also important for us to consider ways to include the voices of students who may not be engaging in these more visible representative roles. For example, students may feel uncomfortable disclosing their experiences or may be concerned that sharing negative feedback could have repercussions. For students facing challenges with energy levels or managing other commitments, the time involved or the mode of participation for being a representative could become barriers. Therefore, as well as having student representatives, it may be beneficial to provide means for students to also share their perspectives in anonymous ways in their own time. (For example, this study used a survey which students responded to anonymously, so this may be one option in addition to student representation!).

Understanding complex cases often requires tangible interaction - what is the best way to do this while maintaining boundaries?

For each of us our boundaries will be individual and personal, and depending on what we ourselves are managing at any one time, may be changeable. One thing that really helped me was taking a Mental Health First Aid course. It helped me to consider how I can support my own wellbeing and self-care, whilst being able to respond in an appropriate and caring way with whomever I was interacting, especially when this involved communication with students in distress. I would highly recommend the courses run by Mental Health First Aid Australia!

How can we know which students have special needs and accommodations (first time being a unit coordinator so I don't know if I should reach out to someone)? (I am at UTas in Tasmania)

In any one class we can have students who have registered with the services, and also students who have not registered but would be eligible for accommodations. It would be beneficial to find out how for your particular university the unit coordinators are informed about what accommodations are to be in place for those registered with the services. Importantly too, for those students with additional needs and/or disabilities who have not registered with the services, and indeed for all students, we need to be considering ways to provide inclusive learning environments. One approach may be to consider universal design for learning – planning to cater to student diversity from the outset (whether or not students formally disclose their needs). For example, we can think about how we are providing all students with equitable access to the learning resources. An example within this would be working to ensure tutorial slides and other learning resources are accessible for students with vision impairment (note: ADCET has some excellent resources). Every small inclusive step adds up and can make a big difference to students’ experiences!

ADCET is hosted by the University of Tasmania