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Reflections on Pathways 12

While having been involved in both the education sector and disability advocacy for over 30 years, this was only my second Pathways conference that I have had the privilege of attending.

My reflections on the conference were threefold:

  • Firstly, I was impressed by the high calibre of candidates who with bright minds and open hearts strive to serve students with a disability throughout the University and VET sectors in Australia.
  • Secondly, I was very pleased to see Damien Griffis Keynote A Call to Action : meeting the needs of Aboriginal people with disabilities, both be given such prominence in the program and effectively stimulate so much rich discussion between the delegates.
  • Thirdly, I was taken by how stretched support staff feel, in trying to meet the needs of students with a disability at their institutions. Furthermore the widespread concern among delegates for students with physical, sensory and learning disabilities getting lost in the crowd of students presenting for support.

It is my third observation, on which I would like to focus. 

I have heard it described by senior administrators as a tsunami of students presenting for support, especially with regard to mental health needs.  For most of the institutions we have been working with, figures are in the thousands for this group of students.  I have a vision of disability support workers with their fingers in the dyke trying to stem the flow, meet the needs of the multitude, mitigate risk for their institutions and avoid tragedy for individual students. 

Some may be surprised to learn that this is not just an Australian phenomena. GAP has found universities throughout Asia, US and Europe experiencing a similar change in profile of students coming forward for support.

Between 2003 and 2012 –numbers of students with a disability attaining a Bachelors degree increased from 12.7% to 14.8%.  The unemployment rate for the same cohort rose from 8.5% to 9.4%. Those with incomes in the top 2 quintiles fell from 24.5% to 21.4%.* From this data we conclude that while more students with a disability are receiving degrees, they are less employable, and less likely to receive a ‘good” salary than 10 years ago.

It would appear therefore that the concerns of delegates expressed at Pathways 12 are spot on.  Our students with physical, sensory and learning disabilities are not as equipped or marketable when leaving our institutions as they were 10 years ago.

My personal concern extends beyond the students with access needs who are being under served due to the increased demand on support services. 

I believe that it is absolutely vital that the experience the general student body has with regard to colleagues with a disability is a positive and powerful one. 

All students need to see that those who have a disability are firstly competitive academically and secondly can easily access and participate in the learning environment.  A positive experience with disability while studying may be the influencing factor needed when employing staff in future roles.

At Pathways 12, Chantel Bongiovanni a PhD Candidate from the University of South Australia gave an outstanding presentation : Experiencing inclusivity from the perspective of disability: A Narrative study.  In this presentation she related both her own experiences and those of the participants in her study. Chantel spoke of how students with a disability felt that they needed to do better than their colleagues in order to be afforded with employment opportunities, also that they felt that they needed to use humour to help fellow students relax and feel comfortable to relate as friends.  If students with physical, sensory and/or learning disabilities are denied access to the learning experience in our universities and TAFES because of the strain on resources,  their opportunities to excel and build meaningful friendships and networks may also be impacted.

Together I believe we need to address this issue and at the minimum ensure that students with sensory, learning and physical disabilities receive the same level of access support that they did 10 years ago.

Thank you to the Pathways 12 Conference 2014 organising committee and ATEND for a wonderful conference.

Sharon Kerr is CEO of Global Access Project

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Reference:  *Table 44300DO001_2012 Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia Summary of findings, 2003- 2012


Sharon Kerr (CEO of Global Access Project)