Category: Articles

$118m and a New Commissioner – Let’s not buy more bandaids for Disability!

We are successful team! Beautiful young woman showing her thumb up and smiling while group of happy young people standing on background and keeping arms

by David Wright  &  Sharon Kerr

Schools and the parents of children with a disability are no doubt delighted at the announcement of $118.2 million dollars over two years to support their learning needs.  And with the appointment of Alastair McEwin as Disability Discrimination Commissioner signalling that Disability is now a priority issue.

The proposed programs deliver much needed funds to critically underfunded schools to deliver the types of “Adjustments” found by the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data (NCCD) – School Students with a Disability project. (

Current adjustment programs cover categories that could be focused to deliver systemic improvements (such as: “a differentiated approach to curriculum delivery and assessment that anticipates and responds to students’ learning differences”; and  “personalised learning that is implemented without drawing on additional resources”) but in practice are mostly applied only in a reactive way trying to bandaid over fundamental flaws in the way education is accessible and effective for students with disabilities and other learning challenges.  

Universities, TAFE’s and Colleges for the most part address disability in the same reactive way – responses or adjustments to student’s needs.

In this post we show how systematic proactive actions can be far more effective for the student and financial sustainable for the institution than reactive bandaids.


  • Funding for students with a disability has mostly been directed at reactive services or ‘adjustments’ that attempt to adjust for flaws in the accessibility of education delivery
  • The greatest volume of issues faced by students with a disability can be addressed by the students themselves with limited drain on teachers time by utilising systematic proven practices such as Universal Design and Personalised Learning
  • Institutions – Schools and Universities – have not embedded these practices because of:
    • Limited understanding of the full business case and the direct financial benefits derived
    • Viewing disability from a ‘Deficit Perspective” rather than a Diversity Opportunity.
    • Lack of monitoring of accessibility levels across organisations rather than individual instance
    • Lack of empowered champions



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Global Access Project – Hot Tip – Speaking with someone who is Deaf or hard of hearing

In this 17 second video Sharon Kerr will provide you with a hot tip to enhance your communications and help avoid offending clients, staff or students.

Equity in Higher Ed – from the Coalface

Logo-web-version-2Sharon Kerr speaks with Ellen Brackenreg of  Western Sydney University

WSU - Ellen Brackenreg copyFew universities in Australia could claim to have done more with regard to facilitating equity of access to Higher Education for the youth of working class families than Western Sydney University. Western Sydney University is proud of its history and success in providing tertiary education opportunities for students who are the first in their families to pass through the hallowed halls of a fine university. They have seen their graduate’s access life opportunities that come from holding a University degree and progress as community and thought leaders in our society.   Western Sydney University came into existence during the Dawkins Revolution in the late 1980’s when the labor government undertook changes to amalgamate Colleges of Advanced Education with Universities.[1] Recently I had the pleasure of meeting with Ellen Brackenreg who has held a number of positions at the University. For the past seven years she has served as Director of Student Support and is now Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor (Students).


Below are excerpts from that interview which provide insight into some of the issues being faced by universities today and the response of Western Sydney University in meeting these.

What challenges do you feel that you are facing with your position (Director Student Support)?

Ellen : The University has a multi campus environment. Each of our campuses are quite unique and the student population quite diverse, so that in itself can be a challenge. From my perspective the biggest challenge however is making sure that whatever we are doing we are doing in a co-ordinated and collaborative manner both within my portfolios and across the University.

What is an example of an area where you have achieved this type of collaboration?

Ellen: We now have what is called a cultural competency plan and we have tools which sit under that so we can measure how we are going. So for example it includes such things as: do we have cultural responsiveness in terms of our strategic planning? Is the language we use culturally inclusive in terms of things we are developing or policies ?

Have you found that staff are open and receptive to this?

Ellen: They are, yes we went through a whole process. We had someone come in who just simply worked across the board, with all teams around cultural competence, using a bottom up, top down approach … rather than one or the other. You plant the seed, you water it, you make your strategic alliances, you get your stakeholders in place, then you have enthused people, get them involved, get them having discussions and when all of these elements come together, they usually come together really well.

It is the same approach we used when we introduced inherent requirements. We now have a group of champions within our service for cultural competencies.

The other thing I am trying to embed within the services is evidence and outcomes based evaluation. Not just satisfaction … but asking (did the service) actually make a difference. We’re hoping to work with academic staff to also get research underway in different areas, and one of those is looking at the whole issue of international students and of course our domestic students and finding out what their experience is in terms of coming to the university, coming to Australia, and what are the barriers to help seeking behaviours.

I think that what you are saying too is, that teaching is not just for the teachers, and student support is not just for support staff, but the teaching and support roles are dovetailed together, shoulder to shoulder to serve the students.

Ellen: The student experience is everyone’s responsibility. And that is why from my perspective making sure that we do have these collaborations and partnerships and some sense of how we have a shared vision, is very, very important, I do think that there is a lot of good work going on at Western Sydney University by a lot of good people.

Are you seeing changes in the number and composition of students presenting with a disability?

Ellen: Certainly we have seen a trend of an increasing number of students actually coming to disability services for support and educational adjustments. …the gap is widening in terms of the growth rate – of the University’s’ growth rate and the growth rate in numbers for those students accessing all support services, with a larger growth rate in the latter. There are more and more students coming in who have a disability or require an adjustment or who sometimes don’t come for an adjustment, but might be accessing another service such as counselling or student welfare.

The other thing we have noticed is that there used to be a disjuncture between those students who would identify at enrolment as “yes I have a disability” and those students who came along to the service.. they weren’t the same students, now more students are ticking “yes I have a disability” and coming to the disability service … so all in all if you put those groups together it is about 4.4 – 4.5% of the student population and we have 44,000 students.

The 2 largest groups are those students with mental health issues and those with a physical disability. But in terms of those with mental health issues … probably we have seen a 75% increase in the number of people coming to the disability support service for adjustments relating to mental health between 2011 – 2015 – this makes up over 30% of the students attending the Disability service for support and adjustments – and makes up about 29% of students who seek support from counselling, so we’ve got a growing number of students that are presenting with mental health issues and seeking support and assistance for those issues. In response to that we have developed the mental health and wellbeing strategy (for students and staff). Not only do we have the strategy, but we have a small mental health and wellbeing team, which includes a mental health co-ordinator, a mental health adviser, and a mental health and wellbeing promotions coordinator.

What about students with a sensory disability? How has the University responded to their needs?

Ellen: I think the number of students in the learning disability category is one of the smaller numbers. But certainly in terms of sensory disabilities, our new head of disabilities is an Auslan speaker and is actually focussing on live captioning for online lecturers when it is required for a student.

One of the things we are now doing is asking- how can we introduce principles of universal design into curriculum? – that has been quite a robust discussion, but from that discussion a working group was set up and they started to look at that whole principle of universal design and also captioning . That group will build a plan with some stages around it … because there are some things that can be done quite easily that don’t have big resource implications. Again we do have staff in the academic area who have become champions of this.

Do you have many international students?

Ellen: Our international student population is not as large as that of other universities.. So currently our international student population is about 10 or 11% of the total student population.


Is the strategic direction of your university focussed on increasing that?

Ellen: Yes, yes, but more than that, one of our strategic directions is internationalisation, so it is not just about increasing the number of international students. It’s about having internationalisation introduced into the curriculum. We have 160 different languages spoken at home by our students. It is about getting those students to experience something perhaps overseas on exchange. It is also about developing strategic international partnerships. So the internationalisation focus is not just about getting increasing numbers of international students studying at the University, it is about a much broader agenda.

I always say that students with disabilities are like the canaries in the coal mine, but your international students are too. Going to a university in a foreign land is very difficult; if you are making it hospitable for international students then it is a very good for all students. I have always found Western Sydney to be a university that believes in the power of education to provide social mobility, to build hope and provide opportunity for a future, it has always been determined to serve the students in the best way possible, to ensure that they have the best possible life opportunities …

Ellen: My two children went on cultural exchange. While they were overseas they were taught in a school where they didn’t speak English. I remember how difficult it was for them to translate little things into English and then try to respond in the host country’s language, (by the time the translation was done) the conversation had moved on, which led to social isolation. Then I thought of our international students and thought how difficult it is to learn in a different language, in a different manner to what they are accustomed to in their home country, and what a challenge it is to people and how courageous they are to come and experience that. It really did give me an appreciation of that. I think that what often happens is that we get so caught up in our day to day work that sometimes we forget to stop and reflect.

[1] Gale, T., & Parker, S. (2013). Widening Participation in Australian Higher Education – Report submitted to HEFCE and OFFA. In HECFE (Ed.), (pp. 80): CFE Research.



Griffith University – A shining light for access and equity

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. Continue reading

Are the doors of your uni open or shut?

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

Samantha Alexander wearing her graduation gown and Darug colours

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.

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Technological change offers new opportunities for people with a disability

In a recent speech Apple chief Tim Cook described people with disabilities as locked in a struggle “to have their human dignity acknowledged”.  All too frequently, he added, they were left “in the shadows of technological advancements that are a source of empowerment and attainment for others”.

He is right. Yet it need not be so and there are solid reasons to believe this situation is set to change. To be sure, obstacles remain – as witnessed by Andrew Trounson’s recent article that Government funding to help universities to support students with disabilities has fallen to less than half the actual cost ( – nevertheless, much can be done within the existing framework.

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New partnership set to bring better deal for Australia’s students with a disability


Greater educational opportunities for disabled students are likely to result from a new international partnership involving Australia’s Global Access Project (GAP).

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – 14 July 2014. GAP this week joined IBM and Nuance Communications (the creators of Dragon NaturallySpeaking software) as the third industry partner in the Liberated Learning Consortium (LLC) – a prestigious international group of technology providers, universities and colleges working to advance information accessibility in higher education through applications of speech recognition software. Hosted by the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the LLC works to collaboratively develop captioning and transcription solutions that create inclusive learning environments.

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Disability no longer a barrier to higher education

People with disabilities will find it easier to study university courses thanks to a practical new service developed by a team of higher education accessibility specialists. It is also designed to help universities meet their obligations in ensuring all students can access their resources.

The Global Access Project (GAP) is the work of the Sydney-based Higher Education Consulting Group, which will launch the service on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, May 15 2014.

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