Supporting Students with Disability


23 August 2019

Studying at TAFE can be challenge for any student, and with around 4.3 million people in Australia recognised as having a disability there is a fair chance that many of our TAFE students will require disability support services while they are enrolled with us. Providing these services is a mandatory requirement for every TAFE across Australia. Yet, maintaining this support has become increasingly difficult due to community service obligation funding cuts, even though expectations are that TAFE will continue to provide these services.

All students have an equal right to access good quality vocational education to achieve their personal goals for learning, meaningful employment or even independent living skills. Whatever learning needs a student with a disability requires to achieve access and equity, staff and programs at TAFE, both teaching and educational support staff do their best to enable that to happen. Whether you are a Disability Liaison Officer in Tasmania or a Disability Teacher Consultant in New South Wales these well trained staff make a positive difference to students’ learning and outcomes.

Once enrolled in a program students with a disability or significant medical condition may need additional support ranging from something as simple as an ergonomic chair to the more sophisticated assistive technology. Alternatively, ensuring there is reasonable adjustment made to learning materials or assessment conditions. There are many ways that these educational support staff can help bridge the gap where one or more disabilities may otherwise be barriers to success.

While not every branch of our union covers non-teaching staff they are valued members in TAFE in their own right and do their utmost to provide a supported learning experience.

Teachers can take advantage of the disability support services in their own institute when students enrol into their class. When a student discloses that they have a disability or a significant medical condition then that is the time to have a discussion regarding what supports need to be put in place or what strategies work for that individual. Whether the student is vision or hearing impaired, on the spectrum, has an intellectual disability, mental health, acquired brain injury or many other challenges, there is usually some way forward.

Growing numbers of people seeking places in vocational education have mental health conditions such as anxiety and panic disorders, depression and bipolar. Sometimes determining a safe place on campus where the student can go when anxiety or panic sets in may be needed. Assistive technology such as a reading program where the text is heard instead of read can increase comprehension. Ensuring students have a learning access plan in place from the beginning of their study to identify the appropriate supports for each individual may mean the difference between success and failure.

In addition to enrolling in mainstream programs some students may choose to undertake study in a class designed for people with an intellectual disability and/or cognitive impairment. One such course is the Work Pathways program at TasTAFE. Students in this class focus on improving their literacy and numeracy, planning their personal vocational pathway and gaining work readiness skills for employment. Student Zoe Dixon has an acquired brain injury from a car accident and is finding the course invaluable. “I want to be more independent and build my self-confidence and to be more positive in my thinking. I’m now taking small steps since my accident.”

Through many practical learning applications and opportunities to gain real work experience the Work Pathways program is able to help engage students in community based activities on and off campus. In the classroom there is a teacher and a VET Student Assistant who can work one-on-one with students or in small groups to maximise learning.

Maureen Turner (pictured) is a VET Student Assistant in the Work Pathways Program at TasTAFE Burnie campus. Initially she was reticent when she got the call to undertake some casual work with the class, but she fell in love with it. “For me it has become the job of a lifetime. It’s encouraging to see students develop their skills and move on in their pathways. It feels good to know that I have been a small part in their progress” she said.

Matthew Marshall (pictured) has used the work pathways course to gain some paid and volunteer work as a teacher assistant at Parklands High School. “My goals is to get a full-time job and the work pathways course will help me do that’ he said.

A great resource for educators is A Good Practice Guide: Supporting tertiary students with a disability or mental illness produced by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research in 2015. This provides a clear and concise read for both teaching and disability service staff based in tertiary education settings. The guide outlines practical ways in which we can provide learning supports that both improve educational outcomes and experiences for students with a disability or mental illness.

Like everyone, students with disability deserve every chance to set and have opportunities to achieve their personal goals. If there is a need to make adjustments or provide additional technological or emotional support then that is what should happen or every attempt made to do so. TAFE has always been a place where anyone could find a path to a new future and we must continue to hold to that ideal.

Michelle Purdy, TAFE President

This article originally appeated in The Australian TAFE Teacher Winter 2019.