Sharon Kerr talks to Cathy Easte, one of the outstanding disability service officers in the Griffith University Disabilities Service Team

In a recent article for the L. H Martin Institute I highlighted the achievements of Samantha Alexander, a young Darug woman who graduated from Griffith University with a Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at a grade point average of 6.5/7. Samantha started to lose her sight at 21 and if it were not for outstanding support, guidance and training in the use of assistive technologies that she received from Cathy Easte and the university’s Disabilities Service, her dreams and hopes for an education and career would have been diminished.

Why was it that Griffith University was able to support Samantha on her pathway to success and achievement, while other universities appeared unable to offer similar backing?

In many ways, Cathy Easte’s own story supplies a large part of the answer. During our talk it became clear that Cathy had walked the path of being both a student and an employee with a disability. With a severe hearing loss, Cathy was in the first group of deaf people in Australia who graduated as teachers in the 1980s. Her aim to be a teacher, however, was thwarted by regulations and administrators of the day in Queensland who were not open to having deaf people be teachers of the deaf.

In short, Cathy’s sense of understanding and commitment to serving students has grown out of her personal, lived experience. She knows what it is like to have others act as the gatekeepers to life opportunities, their focus only on a disability, and closing their eyes to ability, potential and the human right to participate fully in society.

Cathy is encouraged by the ethos and leadership of Griffith University. As an example, she has witnessed Griffith Business School take full ownership for ensuring that students with disabilities can engage fully and on equal footing with their courses. The Business School has ensured that all audio and video is either captioned or transcribed, and that all reading materials are fully accessible by students using assistive technologies such as text to speech software.

“Students with a disability who are enrolled in the Business School are not spending all of their time chasing their tails trying to get accessible materials,” she says. “It means that when they talk to their lecturers it is about meaningful issues relating to the course material they are studying”.

All of Business School’s courses offered through Open Universities Australia are designed using universal design principles.

“I think a lot of students are not aware of their rights to have access,” she says. “Some students come to university with minimal IT skills, or are newly disabled or their disability is changing and they don’t have any access to assistive technology or access to training. ”

Her approach with every student is guided by their individual needs, goals, access to technology and available support networks. In an era where providing access to education and meeting legal obligations for accessibility is viewed by some as a secondary priority, this is both refreshing and heartening.

One of Universities Australia’s policy principles is – “The opportunity to complete a university qualification by Australian citizens is not restricted by the capacity to pay, socio-economic background, location, ethnicity, sex, disability or religion”.  Practice, however, would not appear to be following principle when we note that participation rates for students with a disability have almost stayed static in our institutions since 2006 (Gale & Parker, 2013).

In Australia it is not clear who is ensuring that students with a disability are being provided with the quality service demonstrated by Griffith’s team.

In putting this question to the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA), I was told that “TEQSA is not the administrator of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 or the Disability Standards for Education 2005. The Minister for Education is responsible for reviewing the effectiveness of the education standards in consultation with the Attorney-General.”

TEQSA’s response is surprising when noting that the objects of the (“Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act,” 2011)includes among other responsibilities “to provide for national consistency in the regulation of higher education” and to “encourage and promote a higher education system that is appropriate to meet Australia’s social and economic needs for a highly educated and skilled population”. Surely students with a disability are intended to be included. If not, why not?

Cathy Easte and the team at Griffith University are a shining light in an apparently non-compliant sector when it comes to facilitating equity of access to education and training for students with a disability.

As a sector surely we are able to serve students with a disability better than we are?

 

References:

Gale, T., & Parker, S. (2013). Widening Participation in Australian Higher Education. Australia: Deakin University.

Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act, Act Number 74 C.F.R. (2011).