By Sharon Kerr and Kylie Colvin
First Published on the L H Martin Institute Insights Blog (based at the University of Melbourne) on the 1st September 2014
Recently Samantha Alexander made international headlines. Stories in Australian and British media told how the young Darug woman started to lose her sight at 21, and battled through disadvantage to excel academically, graduating with a Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice from Griffith University with a GPA of 6.5/7.
We, like others, were inspired by Samantha’s story, and after an interview with her came away even more impressed by her wisdom, tenacity and intellect. For what the headlines and inspirational articles did not reveal was how Samantha had been denied the opportunity to succeed at another Australian university, which failed to provide her with accessible versions of her learning materials.
Samantha speaks warmly of the disability support staff at Griffith University – of their care, dedication and determination to provide her with what she needed to learn in a timely fashion. Griffith University and the staff involved stepped up as facilitators to her success, and did not place yet more barriers between Samantha and her opportunity for an education.
When we spoke with Samantha she shared the horror of losing her sight, then her devastation when her drivers licence was revoked, and her increasing lack of self confidence as she started bumping into furniture.Kylie Colvin
As a student who lost her sight as an adult, Samantha knew nothing about assistive technologies that would enable her to continue studying. She was unaware that if her learning materials were developed and delivered in an accessible format she would be able to listen to them using text-to-voice applications. She did not know she would be able to continue studying and subsequently pursue a career.
Knowledge and access to these technologies changed her life and gave her back a future filled with hope and opportunity.
One can only imagine the frustration, disappointment and anger felt by Samantha when she attempted to study through a university that was not prepared to provide her with learning materials that could be accessed using these technologies.
Was this university aware of its legal responsibility to ensure Samantha was provided with accessible formats? Did it understand it was acting as the gatekeeper to her life opportunities?
The Education Standards under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 became Federal law in August 2005. Under these standards, education providers are obligated to both support students with a disability and develop curricula that is accessible. 2A after subsection 22 reads as follows:
(2A) It is unlawful for an education provider to discriminate against a person on the ground of the person’s disability or a disability of any of the person’s associates:?(a) by developing curricula or training courses having a content that will either exclude the person from participation, or subject the person to any other detriment; or?(b) by accrediting curricula or training courses having such a content.
Samantha was tenacious and knew from experience that the supportive team at Griffith University could help her to access her learning materials. With their support, she finished her bachelor degree and has now begun postgraduate study. In addition, she is a public speaker in high demand. She talks to schools and communities about her journey and motivates them to be aspirational for their own lives. As an Aboriginal scholar, Sam is focussed on equity issues more broadly and is dedicating her life to help to close the gap between white and Indigenous Australians.
Samantha is a shining example of what can be achieved when a person seeks and is able to access education.
In the past 10 years, students with a disability participating in higher education have increased from 19.5% to 23.8%. An additional 32,000 people with a disability now hold a higher education qualification as opposed to only a decade ago.
Action on accessibility in our universities can change lives, enrich our institutions and help to build our nation.
Sharon Kerr is CEO of the
Kylie Colvin is Executive Director, Practice Lead – Planning and Analytics –
 Source: ABS Tables 4300d001_2012, 4300d001_2003, Disability, Aging and Carers, Summary of Findings. All people with a disability with Diploma, Advanced Diploma or Bachelor Degree.