Written by Tim Harte – PDA’s VIC Director
For people with disabilities, reasonable adjustments are a common challenge to negotiate. Reasonable adjustments can include modifications to the environment or conditions of any area of public life, such as work, study, or provision of a service (e.g., a local library), that allow people with disabilities to work safely and productively or to access that service. In an educational setting, reasonable adjustments can include extra time for assessment tasks, assistance in hands-on learning to complete physical aspects of learning tasks (e.g., shifting a microscope into position on a desk), or the provision of learning materials in an alternative format, such as large size font or other formats.
During my time undertaking undergraduate study, I have found there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of reasonable adjustments by staff of tertiary education institutions and the Australian population. I have observed that physical reasonable adjustments are understood better, perhaps because the adjustment is more observably connected with the physical requirement e.g. if a physics assessment task requires a student to jump up and down with an accelerometer, the average person assumes and accepts that a student in a wheelchair will require an altered assessment task. From experience, reasonable adjustments required for non-physical disabilities or physical disabilities that are less well-known, obvious and observable, such as those occurring from complex medical conditions, are understood and accepted to a lesser extent, sometimes to the point of academic staff viewing the reasonable adjustments as an unfair advantage.
After conversing with fellow students and academic staff about the reasoning behind my own reasonable adjustments,there has remained a lack of understanding for the rationale of non-access related reasonable adjustments, such as extra time for assessment tasks. Extra time for assessment tasks can be seen as an access related reasonable adjustment e.g., a student cannot write as fast due to a disability so extra time is allotted to assessments, but the average student often runs out of time in assessment tasks, hence could claim they should have more time too. Fundamentally, I think it is the implementation of reasonable adjustments for equitable outcomes that are least understood and part of this is due to the lack of understanding of ‘equity’.
Equality means people have equal rights and equal access to certain social goods and social services; equity, on the other hand, acknowledges that society is not a level playing field and each person is in, or born into, different circumstances,hence specific, advantageous resources/opportunities need to be allocated appropriately to attain equitable outcomes. The broader Australian populace needs to understand that, due to both disabling aspects of our physical environment (social model of disability) and unchangeable impacts our impairments have on our lives (radical model of disability),people with disabilities experience inequity every day of their lives. The average Australian does not realise that ‘a fair go’ is denied to people with disabilities.
Education, via personal story telling, breaks down perceptions of difference and highlights similarities and shared experiences, thereby humanising people with disabilities in the eyes of non-disabled people. This facilitates understanding and empathy of the daily plight of people with disabilities – assisting the non-disabled population to ‘walk in our shoes’ and comprehend the lives and experiences of people with disabilities, as well as the requirement for reasonable adjustments to achieve some level of equity.