University life is more difficult than it was before. Its shape and its structure do not resemble themselves as they did a few decades ago. When classes (for example) did not check for attendance, it was far easier to survive without working a part-time job, assessments were weighted more evenly, and nobody had considered condensing study into trimesters over semesters. These are changes to what a tertiary education experience is impact everybody but have particularly negative effects for disabled people. This is a brief guide to mitigating the effects of the difficulty of navigating the modern university. While inaccessibility is rampant across Australian universities, there is great worth in planning against it, and this guide aims to help you do just that.
Research your university’s policies
While applying for special consideration or making an action plan for your studies will often mean you become acquainted with student services, this does not necessarily mean you will come across all the information that will be useful for you to know. For that reason, it’s a good idea to go deeper into your university’s disability policies, to learn what accessibility plans are in place and what kind of support you can gain access to.
In addition, some of the terms used in policies have only recently become used in university disability policy. For instance, ‘fit to sit’ rules, now adopted by Macquarie University, The University of New South Wales, and the University of Melbourne, which mean that sitting for an exam becomes an announcement that one is prepared to complete it. This is problematic for a few reasons, and it’s emblematic of the kind of change you might not be aware of until it’s too late.
Researching also means becoming familiar with any form of policy which might seem irrelevant at first to disability but may become relevant to you. For example, your institution’s extension policy and approach to students studying with varying kind of study loads are crucial to understand for people with disabilities. Particularly if those disabilities affect your general capacity to get through large amounts of academic work in a short period of time.
On a similar note, universities do offer scholarships and bursaries to students going through hardship, but these are not directly advertised to students, and may need to be found through some Googling. They can be an invaluable tool to freeing up financial concerns which arise from being a disabled student at university.
Seek out community
Seeking out the disability group within your university can be a great way to form a network, as well as find support and advice as you make your way through your tertiary years. Universities often list their student groups on a directory on their websites, and the group may be called a collective but they are common amongst tertiary institutions. These kinds of groups do great work in terms of providing material and resources for studying while disabled.
As universities are often subtle (to be generous) about changes to disability policy, it’s useful to have a group of people capable of updating one another on changes. As well as providing support and information, these groups can be a vital source for community and solidarity in what can be an alienating system to navigate while disabled.
Often the demands of university life, amongst work commitments, quickly becomes overwhelming, and it becomes difficult to meet all your obligations. When this happens, you may wish to look at dropping subjects, or delaying subjects. This is another area where understanding university policy is useful. Universities do tend to allow dropping subjects without penalty, but this may be complicated if the university has not been made aware of your medical condition or doesn’t have the documents. At the end of the day, a university degree is a university degree, no matter how long it takes to get, and it’s always better to prioritise your own health over speedily getting through university.
Another useful thing to do is, if relevant, sending your tutor a friendly email before classes start can be a useful way to make your needs known ahead of time, even if the adjustments you need are not the kind that don’t need evidence and documentation. As well as being practical, it also shows you’re eager and determined to succeed!
Cameron Colwell is a writer of fiction and criticism living in Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared in Overland Journal, Voiceworks, and Kill Your Darlings. Now that he has finished his Graduate Diploma in English, he has had his academic fix and decided to focus on other pursuits, including theatre criticism, teaching, and a set of essays about living with dyspraxia.
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