Modern (In)Accessibility

By Alex Linker

Accessibility to education for people with disability is a fundamental (and legally protected) right. However, UNSW doesn’t always provide it effectively.

One of the biggest aspects of accessibility regards wheelchair users or people with otherwise limited mobility. Whilst I do not have limited mobility, chronic pain often prevents me from walking long distances, and I especially have issues with stairs, even on “good” pain days.

The current construction underway on campus limits a lot of accessible routes, meaning getting to class takes even longer. While I can just walk up a flight or two of stairs when the “accessible” route proves not so accessible, not everyone is able to do so. When your mobility is already limited, why should students have to take such circuitous routes to get from A to B? Often the “accessible” routes are out of the way, meaning that people with limited mobility must walk even further to get to a lift (which is the opposite of helpful).

And what about captions? Many courses that I’ve taken require students to watch videos. However, for someone who requires closed captioning to understand footage, those courses are completely inaccessible. These students shouldn’t have to request that the videos for their courses be made captioned – any video in any course should be captioned without question.

We then run into the issue of lecture recordings – none of these are captioned. Whilst captioning every lecture poses difficulties, what are d/Deaf/Hard of Hearing (HoH) people supposed to do if they miss a lecture? Whilst finding the right solution might be easier said than done, there’s no chance of a solution being implemented when the university doesn’t seem to notice the issue in the first place.

Unfortunately, there is one group of people whose accessibility is commonly overlooked. People who experience cognitive and/or processing differences often find many elements of society inaccessible to them. These differences can include autism, mental illness, intellectual disability, learning disabilities, ADHD, Tourette’s, and many more.

People with these differences may experience many (varied) barriers to participating in higher education. These include: being overloaded by sensory input (for example, loud noises or bright lights), needing extra processing time to learn material, bad memory inhibiting performance on examinations, or being unable to control movements and/or vocalisations. All of these barriers can cause people to miss out on some of their education, and be unable to fully participate in university life.

In my own experience, I have regularly felt overlooked when it comes to my accessibility needs being met. My sensory processing differences make it difficult for me to deal with lots of background noise (for example, the kind you might hear while everyone chats before a lecture starts). This means that I start each lecture at a disadvantage – I’ve already used up a lot of my cognitive resources to cope with the noise, leaving less mental resources available for my learning. I’m not suggesting that we wait in silence, but there are ways I can be accommodated. For example, I could be allocated a set seat that I could slip into just as the lecture is starting.

The university needs to work with students with processing or cognitive differences (and their doctors when necessary) in order to find solutions that work for individual students. Blanket accommodations for specific conditions might not always be appropriate and the university currently does not provide all accommodations that may be necessary in specific situations.

One common misconception about accommodations (special provisions) is that they are somehow “unfair” to the students who do not receive them. This is far from the truth.

I get extra time on my exams. However, this does not give me an advantage over other students, it levels the playing field. Even with my extra time, on a difficult exam, I may not finish the entire paper. Extra time isn’t a free pass to finishing an exam, or even doing well. Extra time means I’m given the chance to complete the paper in the same way that a neurotypical, abled student of similar ability would. It allows me to rest when my shoulder or wrist or eyes are aching. It gives me extra time to read the questions, because my eyes can’t easily track across a line of text. It gives me longer to think, because I process information more slowly. It gives me extra time to write or type, as both are often slow or painful. It does not give me an advantage, but merely allows me to complete the work to the best of my ability, in the same way as is afforded to everybody else.

Something else that is not often discussed in terms of accessibility and accommodation is that difficulties caused by disability can shift over time, depending upon a large variety of factors. And these shifts are not always predictable. I might not always need to type my exams, but this doesn’t mean I can always handwrite them.

Such widespread (mis)conceptions about accessibility and accommodations do not give our university an excuse to often be so inaccessible for the many students with disability. UNSW needs to take a hard look at where its accessibility is failing and work to change the system, so that all future students can access their education equitably and equally.

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