Students with disability diminished in education revamp

Kat Wong |

More needs to be done to include students with disabilities wanting to access higher education.
More needs to be done to include students with disabilities wanting to access higher education.

Students with disabilities are being diminished and underestimated in a revamp aimed at improving the accessibility of higher education, peak disability bodies say.

The Universities Accord, released in February, laid out a decades-long blueprint for further education to meet demand for skills.

To ensure at least 80 per cent of the workforce have vocational education and training (VET) or university qualification by 2050, universities must target prospective students from under-represented backgrounds.

While students with disabilities are among those groups, the Australian Tertiary Education Network on Disability (ATEND) says the accord has excluded some while using ableist language.

A man in a wheelchair
Universities need to target prospective students from under-represented backgrounds. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

By omitting those with a “profound disability” from data sets used to calculate the participation rate of those with a disability, the plan perpetuates low expectations.

This also diminishes the achievements of Australians with a profound disability who have succeeded in higher education like Central Queensland University chancellor Graeme Innes or doctor Dinesh Palipana.

While the accord sets increased participation rate targets for First Nations students, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and regional students, it only aims to maintain rates for those with disabilities.

“This demonstrates low expectations and a failure to consider the continued discrimination and adverse outcomes experienced by students with disability,” ATEND’s statement read.

The Universities Accord report found students with disabilities made up 11.6 per cent of enrolments even though the group had an expected enrolment share of 8.4 per cent.

A disability sign
The number of VET graduates with disability who have found jobs is growing. (James Ross/AAP PHOTOS)

But data quality and collection challenges mean there is a strong likelihood this cohort is still under-represented, the document read.

Without changes to the accord, disability inclusion efforts will go backwards and students with support needs could be ignored.

In response, ATEND and other key disability groups including Physical Disabilities Australia and All Means All, have called for the retraction of ableist language from the plan and a recalculation of the target participation rate for students with disability.

They have also urged the National Student Ombudsman and national student charter to add provisions that address the needs of people with disabilities.

The Australian Disability Strategy Outcomes Framework, which will be released on Thursday, has found the rate of VET graduates with disabilities who find jobs has increased from 51.5 per cent in 2021 to 62.3 per cent.

Working age Australians with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed as those without disabilities and are also likely to be unemployed for longer.

But since the release of Australia’s Disability Strategy 2021-2031, the proportion of VET graduates with disabilities who have found jobs has continued to grow with those who are hard of hearing or deaf making up the biggest proportion of this group.

“Increasing the numbers of people with disability with jobs is good for everyone,” Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth said.