HREOC Forum Discussion Paper

Accessible Tertiary Materials - Student Perspective




With Contributions from:

Jody Holdback (S.A.), Mark Davies (N.T.), Mary Rispoli (VIC) and Jason White (VIC)



Key Issues


·        While the student panel comprises individuals who are blind or have a vision impairment, discussion and research needs to include all students with a print disability including - but not limited to - those whose physical limitations prevent them from holding a book, turning pages etc, and those who have a learning impairment such as dyslexia.


·        Each student requires their current situation and future needs to be reviewed on an individual basis with it being noted that one student may require multiple forms of adaptive technology and alternative formats such as Braille and audio or hard copy large print and electronic text.


·        Some aspects of providing accessible materials are much harder to address than others. Basic measures could include the provision of overheads and class notes prior to class which would allow the student to be more prepared and subsequently better able to participate in class. This may be achieved by making overheads etc available in their source format (such as a word document)


·        A contentious issue surrounds the sourcing and provision of materials. Should it be the university's responsibility to source accessible format texts? It could be argued that this is similar to the campus bookshop providing the appropriate texts to students. However a 'source library' or national repository, cataloguing and holding copies of accessible texts would make this a much simpler task for both students and tertiary institutions.


·        Some print disabilities may be temporary, permanent or fluctuating in severity.   This may necessitate the use of various alternative formats.


·        Not having access to tertiary materials in an appropriate format has repercussions reaching far beyond those of academic performance. The time required organising, negotiating and occasionally compromising in the pursuit of accessible materials curtails the amount of time left for a student to participate in other facets of tertiary life


·        Having to deal with inaccessible study materials and even the inevitable time delay in acquiring them often challenges a student's psychological well being in that they are more prone to stress and anxiety over and above the general anxiety of adapting to a tertiary education system.


·        A majority of students with a print disability are studying at a tertiary level to improve their future employment prospects and for a sense of self achievement. The barriers faced when dealing with the accessibility of academic materials, are sometimes embraced as 'character building' and 'yet another challenge' but they can also often seem insurmountable, resulting in a student feeling they cannot continue their studies. It is evidenced by the number of participants at the forum that this latter eventuation is something educators, producers and most especially students are working towards preventing


·        Forums, such as this are a wonderful opportunity for students to express their views on issues that are central to their success or failure at a tertiary level of study. The issues raised will apply across all levels of education.   However it is in the tertiary arena, that the often extremely restrictive time frame in which to access accessible materials plays the greatest role.  


Student participants


For the purpose of this forum, a panel of five students from geographically diverse regions across will attempt to provide some insight into issues affecting students with a print disability and - where possible - provide suggested solutions.   It is important to bear in mind, that due to our diverse backgrounds, we have a limited and varied combined knowledge of the intricate details often involved when presenting possible recommendations. However, we are attending this forum to try and gain a better understanding of all the issues surrounding the provision of accessible academic materials for ourselves as well as, hopefully, contributing to a better understanding for providers of education, producers and other involved and interested parties.





People with disabilities, as defined by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 [1] are participating in Tertiary education more than ever. Like other students, this is often out of a desire and need, to gain qualifications which will enable them to obtain fulfilling employment. Of the many issues impacting students with a disability, one with greatest impacts over the student's ability to participate and achieve in the tertiary environment is the provision of tertiary course material in accessible formats. This is primarily applicable to students with a print disability.


It is important to note that students with a print disability are not limited to those who are blind or vision impaired. The Copyright Amendment Act (No. 1) 1998 defines a person with a print disability as:

                              (a)   a person without sight; or

                              (b)   a person whose sight is severely impaired; or

                              (c)   a person unable to hold or manipulate books or to focus or move his or her eyes; or

                              (d)   a person with a perceptual disability.


As students are aware, it is rare that anyone would openly discriminate against another person or group of persons. Not only is it illegal under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, but morally and socially reprehensible in today's society. Therefore, often, in providing social and equitable justice to prospective and current students with any disability, it is necessary for tertiary institutions to make adjustments to existing provisions and methods, and where required, invent or adopt additional or new systems to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities. This requirement is especially crucial when pertaining to the provision of academic materials such as text books and related course materials to enable students with a print disability the opportunity to participate and acquire knowledge on an equal basis to their peers.


While it is obviously a central focus, tertiary institutions don't just provide academic knowledge and skills. A tertiary experience encompasses many areas of a person's life, including social interaction, leadership opportunities and countless other influences over an individual's experience. Student's who have a print disability will inevitably spend a greater amount of time and effort accessing academic materials, even when available in their preferred format. When materials are not available in accessible formats, the student cannot spend time participating in other facets of university life, as their whole focus has to be on attempting to access the materials that their peers often take for granted.


The definition of disability discrimination can be seen as an event which occurs when an individual is discriminated against by another on the grounds of disability by treating them differently or purporting to treat them differently. In the majority of instances, this discrimination is not intended but is an unfortunate consequence of ignorance when faced with the myriad of issues surrounding print disability.


Often, what occurs in the realm of print disability is indirect discrimination which occurs when a person with a disability is required to comply with the 'status quo'. This situation is often untenable to an individual with a print disability as they are often not able to access academic materials in the same manner as other students. Under the Disability Discrimination Act, it is unlawful for an educational institution to discriminate against a person by refusing or denying a student equal access or limiting a student's access to any benefit provided by that institution – this undoubtedly is inclusive of academic materials.

Student's Requirements of Tertiary Institutions


Students recognise that in any process requiring institutions and individuals to make accommodations for individual needs through the provision of alternative format materials negotiation and compromise are a necessary process. However, when approaching study, especially at a tertiary level (where it may be unfamiliar to both students continuing directly from high school and mature age students returning to study) students will require both support and advice in addition to (or solely in the form of) the provision of materials to facilitate full participation in courses and additional social and academic activities.    


Students are aware of the ever increasing demand for the provision of materials and the subsequent skyrocketing of costs to produce these.  However, this does not negate the need for the provision of these materials.


Through increased education and awareness training it is hoped that staff will anticipate the need for adjustment of academic materials into a format that is most accessible to the individual student. This includes not categorising the student into a certain 'needs' category or assuming their needs are exactly the same as the last student with a print disability that they were in contact with.


Students often feel that their input is not sufficiently sought by institutions when procedures and policies which directly impact on the student's educational experience are made and implemented. It is also important for the student to feel that any request they make will be taken seriously and that the request will be promptly reviewed.


Even within a single category of print disability such as blindness, the skills possessed and the level of familiarity of an adaptive technology employed by the individual student vary enormously. This is similar to the different proficiency in regards to the note taking skills of all students. A blind person may have superior skills to a fully sighted person when choosing which information is relevant and applicable to a particular subject, however, the same blind student may have inferior Braille skills to other blind students.

For this reason, it is important for staff to assess each student's needs on an individual level. The student will know what works for them and what formats are most accessible. It saves the trouble of making incorrect assumptions and the awkwardness or resentment felt by both parties when an effort has been made, but the result is practically useless.


Disability Support Staff (also referred to as Disability Liaison Officers) often provide invaluable information to both students and staff. However, depending on the number of students at a university requiring assistance from the disability support person, the time and energy they can provide for an individual is often limited. Their role or services they are responsible for often seems blurred to students


Ideally, all Disability Support Staff should be aware of the various formats available and the approximate time needed for materials to be sourced and produced in alternative formats. This would allow coordination with academic staff in a time frame which allows for the production or sourcing of alternative formats prior to the course beginning.


Staff development and awareness training is vital to ensuring that students have equitable access. These programs need to cover a myriad of areas, but for the purpose of this discussion, it is important to focus on awareness of the following areas:


-     Awareness of the principle of equity, especially in relation to academic materials;

-     Basic disability awareness including attitudes appropriate and those not appropriate when associating with students with disabilities;

-     Familiarity with disability support staff at their institution and their role, abilities and areas of expertise; and

-     A basic knowledge of alternative teaching and assessment strategies for students with a print disability.


There are increasing numbers of tertiary institutions producing Disability Action Plans. To enable greater clarity for all involved, steps should be taken to ensure that they have comprehensive directions and instructions in regards to the provision of alternative format materials, the varying methods of production, format and presentation as well as the corresponding approximate costs and time involved in this production.   This would therefore allow realistic time barriers to be set and hopefully minimised, by advance planning and organisation on the part of academic staff.




Students with Print Disabilities


Students at all institutions need to be proactive in a sense that they will inform the institution at the earliest possibility of their particular requirements. Not all students will be as proactive as the representatives at the forum and may require encouragement to provide input and feedback, both positive and negative.


Also, the individual student's adaptation to disability and their skill in using alternative strategies will vary according to whether the impairment is long-standing, recently acquired, fluctuating, intermittent or temporary. For example, a student who has had a disability since birth will very likely be more adept at identifying and using alternative strategies than students who have recently acquired a disability or students who are continually adjusting to intermittent conditions (eg, some forms of arthritis).




The 'Human' Aspect


The impact having to negotiate and compromise in an attempt to have access to academic materials in an appropriate format is sometimes underestimated or overlooked. Many students will suffer from stress etc at some point in their tertiary studies. However, this stress is often compounded by situations in which students with a print disability have to deal with additional issues relating to course material and accessibility.




Many students with a print disability will, at some point have to contend with:


-     High levels of stress and anxiety;

-     Pressure that lasts until the person receives their individual requirements or until they decide it is all too hard and leaves their tertiary facility.

-     Self advocacy, that incorporates many aspects:

§        meetings with Disability Liaison Officers, faculty, lecturers, course coordinators, complaints manager, counselling sessions and external advocates if appropriate;          

§        ongoing phone calls in relation to the above areas; and

§        the whole process of writing the complaint.



Often this process can go on for months if not the whole year and can often unfortunately be a repetitive process:



-     The great anxieties of falling behind in study due to lack of or delay of course material in appropriate formats;

-     Not being able to participate in tutorials due to lack of access of material;

-     The pressure of producing own materials which is time consuming and should be spent for studying, until assistance is available, if it ever is;

-     The struggle for equal opportunity is taxing in itself;

-     The student's main focus is to concentrate on study material and complete course requirements, with all the other factors, it is difficult to concentrate at all;

-     It affects concentration levels and quality of study;

-     Anxiety affects, not only study performance but also the person's personal life and health;

-     Higher education is stressful for all students;





Reasonable Accommodation or Adjustment


A United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons (1978) is scheduled to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Act 1986. This document recognises that disabled persons are entitled to "the right to any necessary treatment, rehabilitation, education, training and other services to develop their skills and capabilities to the maximum".


It is appropriate to expect that reasonable adjustment and accommodation applies to the areas of course design and delivery, teaching strategies and provision of academic materials in an accessible format best suited to the individual student.


While it is apparent that often meeting this requirement requires flexibility and often considerable expense on the Tertiary institution, it cannot be argued that it is an unreasonable request and expectation.


In some cases, where there are numerous students requiring multiple texts, often in multiple formats, this can become extremely cost prohibitive and some institutions may find it justifiable to invoke the unjustifiable hardship clause of the Disability Discrimination Act – a situation we are trying to remedy by this forum.



Assistive and Adaptive Technology


Assistive technology, in the form of audio-visual equipment, Closed Circuit Televisions, Braillers, computers software for large print text and speech output, talking book machines etc, varies amongst students. This applies not only the technology preferred and known by the student, but the equipment available for their use while attending tertiary institutions. Some universities will set aside a room or area where students with print disabilities can utilise the assistive technology in a comfortable environment.


Technological advancements have led to the extensive use of the internet for accessing academic information. There is also the recent invention of electronic textbooks which will hopefully allow much easier access to alternative formats such as Braille, large print, speech programs etc as it should be a much simpler process to 'import' the electronic text into different formats.


Even when students access course materials over the World Wide Web, an increasingly popular choice for students with a print disability, there are numerous issues which arise. These include reliable and timely delivery of material (data speed can be a problem for students living in rural areas for example). There is also the common occurrence of websites not complying with international standards regarding the accessibility of websites.


Although this is becoming a popular choice both for universities and students as a means to circumvent the need to produce materials in large print and audio, the need for students to purchase additional software and equipment in order to have equal access to these methods of course delivery is often in itself very cost prohibitive in that in addition to needing a central processing unit capable of running web sites which are often embedded with audio/video etc, associated costs are accrued through the need for additional software and hardware for students to utilise this form of course delivery such as screen readers, refreshable Braille output, etc.


On the positive side, online delivery of courses provides the opportunity to use Bulletin Boards and Chat sessions as a way for students to be part of a group while working at their own pace. Discussions over Bulletin Boards can be done when the student has taken the necessary time needed to complete readings etc.





In examining the aforementioned issues, we must also bear in mind that education rarely stops at the end of school or university. For many people professional development is an essential method of furthering one's career. It requires a broad search of materials, ranging from trade magazines, field journals, seminal papers, the Internet, sales literature to name a few and strategies employed in the attainment of accessible materials would be applicable to this situation.

This will increasingly present as a new issue, as the first large batch of so-called integration students are beginning to reach high professional positions. It's important to help them to develop their careers by assisting them with professional development issues.


Also, if current employment trends hold firm over the next half-century, it is also likely that people will change careers several times during their working life. Retraining of non-disabled people often requires a combination of self-motivated research, and/or formal instruction or training. If print-disabled people are to reach their full potential, they should not be denied assistive services just because they are no longer of a young age.


Students, providers and tertiary institutions are continually discovering new areas that need to be addressed in the pursuit of equality of access in education. Through forums such as this and ongoing consultation with the various participants, agreements can be reached and solutions found.










I would like to acknowledge the editorial skills and assistance of and and thank them for proof reading this paper.

[1] The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 provides the following definition of 'disability':

                      "Disability in relation to a person, means:

(a)     total or partial loss of the person's bodily or mentally functions; or

(b)     total or partial loss of a part of the body; or

(c)     the presence in the body of organisms causing disease or illness; or

(d)     the presence in the body of organisms capable of causing disease or illness; or

(e)     the malfunction, malformation or disfigurement of a part of the person's body; or

(f)       a disorder or malfunction that results in the   persons learning differently from a person without the disorder or malfunction; or

(g)     a disorder, illness or disease that affects the persons thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgment that results in disturbed behavior;

and includes a disability that:

(h)     presently exists; or

(i)       previously existed but no longer exists; or

(j)     may exist in the future; or is imputed to a person