Madonna Nicoll has been in a wheelchair her whole life but says it has never stopped her from achieving her dream of attending university.
Madonna is currently completing her Doctorate of Philosophy at the Queensland University of Technology but statistically people with disabilities are severely underrepresented in the university system.
Ms Nicoll says that there needs to be a stronger emphasis on university participation by people with disability.
A 2011 report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that Australia ranked 21 out of 29 in OECD countries in employment participation rates for those with a disability. Similarly, around 45 per cent of Australians with disability are living either near of below the poverty line.
Ms Nicoll says access to education is key to opening up economic and social opportunity for people with disability.
Disability access and support in university is improving, but students with disability do face additional hurdles.
“Something like a lift being broken can sort of turn your day upside down and you may need to find another way to get from a to b which can be quite difficult but that’s not just in the university, you can extrapolate that to other parts of life as well,” Ms Nicoll said.
Despite the struggles, Ms Nicoll says her experience of university has largely been a positive one.
“I’ve had a very embracing faculty, they’ve facilitated my education at all times and helped me in every way that they could and they’ve just worked with me to meet my needs in the best way that they could,” she said.
“One such example is when I was telling one of the lecturers about the difficulties of going to the bathroom at university because I use a hoist to transfer myself and there was no such facility on campus. She was so shocked by the idea that she actually advocated to get a hoist on campus for me so it’s now it’s there if I need,” said Ms Nicoll.
She admits her area of study in social work may explain her positive experience and that not everyone with disability may have such encouraging experiences.
“I’ve recently been told by someone who has a physical disability who applied to QUT that when they met with a career counsellor not to even bother applying that she wouldn’t make it, she wouldn’t succeed, she wouldn’t meet deadlines so she shouldn’t even bother.”
Disability social worker and activist, Dr Lisa Bridle says these experiences are common for people with disability.
“There are a lot of barriers for a person with a disability and some of them are more overt than others. I think there is still a level of discomfort amongst academics who might be unsure about the best supports for people with disability. Another fundamental issue are negative attitudes towards disability, from academics and fellow students, and low expectations of what people with disability can achieve and the ways their support needs can be successfully accommodated not just at university but in later careers,” said Dr Bridle.
Ms Nicoll agrees that the biggest barrier for people with disability is the attitude of others.
“I’ve had some really great supportive lecturers throughout the years who have really helped my education and have been very accepting and embracing of disability so I think that the attitudinal barriers are the biggest leap other than the physical barriers. So if you’ve got people working in the university system that have the right attitude I think it’s the biggest mountain to cross.”
Former director of University of Queensland’s Teaching and Educational Development Institute, Merrilyn Goos believes academics need to learn to teach a more diverse student population.
“At present, too many academics assume they will always be teaching a homogeneous group of students, so they don’t have to think too hard about changing their teaching practice. At times, unfortunately, some academics demonstrate a deficit view of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, so we need to turn this around so they can appreciate diversity as a resource for enriching their teaching and enriching the learning of all their students,” she said.
Dr Bridle says Australia has fallen behind many countries in encouraging students with students with disability, including students with intellectual disabilities, to be active participants in university life.
“One of things that is striking is that in other countries universities are much more inclusive than they are in Australia. Throughout much of North America, in Canada and the United States, there are many students with developmental disability attending university or college and participating in regular courses. This is unheard of in Australia and likely to be rejected as ridiculous, but the evidence is that it has been highly successful for significant numbers of students, and embraced by academics as having significant benefits, and I think it is that level of diversity that we should be aiming for,” she said.
Ms Nicoll is hopeful that her study will not only lead her to a job in the disability sector but encourage others with disability to pursue their dreams despite certain barriers.
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