Let’s bust those myths about our students with disabilities!

People with disabilities account for 18% of the Australian community or roughly 4.4 million people, and yet, here at ANU, roughly only 10% of our students have registered with Access & Inclusion (A&I). So far in 2021, that’s about 1,600 students. If we consider that not all students register with A&I, our overall number of students with a disability could be higher and much closer to the national figure. So why might some students choose not to disclose their disability or medical condition, and therefore not to access support through services such as A&I?

Maybe they don’t want to disclose their disability as they have had negative past experiences, are concerned about encountering lowered expectations and other prejudicial attitudes, or have experienced difficulty with the disclosure process. In a survey conducted by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW), it is estimated that around 11% of students do not disclose their disability to their university.

What are some of the barriers faced by students with a disability?

The AIHW’s People with Disability in Australia report also identified the most common barriers faced by young people with disabilities as:

  • mental health (28% compared with 16% of those without disability)
  • academic ability (25% compared with 20%)
  • physical health (12% compared with 4.0%).

So how do students feel about the impact of their disability and the potential lack of accommodations at university on their ability to learn in higher education?

In 2019, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESES) Higher education equity table reported that 6.2% (or 11,200) of the undergraduate students and 3.1% (or 2,590) of the postgraduate coursework students identified as disabled. The 2019 DESES data reported in the AIHW report also shows that current students in:

  • undergraduate courses who reported they had a disability were less likely (76%) than those without disability (79%) to give a positive rating to the quality of their entire educational experience
  • postgraduate coursework courses who reported disability were also less likely (73%) than those without disability (76%) to give a positive rating to the quality of their entire educational experience
  • undergraduate courses who reported disability were more likely (27%) than those without disability (19%) to consider early departure from their course
  • postgraduate coursework courses who identified as having a disability were also more likely (30%) than those without disability (17%) to consider early departure from their course.

Here at ANU, we want to ensure our students with disabilities are understood and are accommodated, so here are

Three facts to know about registered ANU students with disabilities:

  1. ANU has more students with an invisible disability (90%) than students with visible disability such as hearing, mobility, vision and writing (10%) (Figure 1).
  2. More than 50% of our students with disabilities are registered with mental health issues (anxiety, depression, bipolar) which is also the highest barrier reported to the AIHW.
  3. Students with chronic medical issues are the next largest group (within invisible disability) followed by students with autism and/or ADHD. Both groups are also likely to experience mental health issues.

So what is an invisible disability?

Invisible disabilities, or hidden disabilities, is a term that refers to a range of disabilities and conditions that are not immediately apparent to others. Invisible disabilities may include “symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences, and mental health issues, as well as hearing and vision impairments.” These disabilities are not always obvious to see, but can affect daily activities, and range from mild challenges to severe limitations. Most importantly, the nature, severity and way in which the disability may impacts the individual’s ability to function may vary significantly from one person to another and can be difficult for others to recognise or comprehend. Listen to some personal stories from people with invisible disabilities to expand your understanding as apparently “they look okay”. Or listen to the video Not All Disabilities Are Visible from NSW Government to hear more about invisible disabilities within the Australian context.

Figure 1. Breakdown of ANU students registered with Access & Inclusion by disability (as of 31 December 2020).

August 2021

Dr Scott Rickard is autistic, an Educational Designer at the Centre for Learning and Teaching and the Chair of the ANU Disability Action Plan Education Provider of Choice Action Group.

Reshad Heckbarally, Manager, Access and Inclusion