Walking through campus, it often seems like high-vis construction workers are as common as those pesky lunch-stealing ibises. However, unlike the aimless gallavanting of our feathered friends, the physical facelifts and technological revamps taking place on our campuses are completely transforming the way teaching and learning environments are used and accessed.
All students know the challenge presented by a big end-of-year exam, but for many students, sometimes the bigger challenge is getting into the exam room itself. This is at the heart of the University’s six-year Disability Action Plan, dedicated to physical, visual, hearing and intellectual support to provide equal access to learning. Guided by the DAP, the University seeks to find accessibility improvements where they are possible. While there is much more that can be done, the campus of today has come a long way toward making inclusivity as foundational to the University as the sandstone blocks at the base of the Quad.
Picture this: you’ve just received your final class timetable and you see that your first class is on Level 5 of the Abercrombie Business School, and your class immediately after is on the opposite side of campus in the Quad. You accept the challenge – you run across campus, taking the stair shortcut, skipping a few steps on the way up. You dodge the crowds as you run up Eastern Ave, jumping over any obstacles that dare to get in your way. Out of breath, you make it to your tutorial with seconds to spare. Now imagine this if you were visually impaired. Or in a wheelchair. Or anxious in highly crowded places. It’s not so simple.
Before documents like the DAP were a thing, the University was like many public places of the past – built without accessibility in mind and therefore scattered with obstacles. Like a Michael Rosen's bear hunt, students would have to find a way “over it, around it or under it” rather than there being an easy, accessible solution. Since then, University campuses have made many changes so that they are more physically accessible. These changes come in the form of seven ramps, eight lifts, a wheelchair hoist in the Great Hall, toilet upgrades in Carslaw and Fisher and five accessible teaching facilities, just to name a few.
Disabilities aren’t always visible. For some, accessibility solutions come in the form of visual, hearing or intellectual aids. Something as simple as elevator announcements that tell you what floor you’ve arrived on, or the vibrating pulse on pedestrian crossing buttons make the world of difference to a person with a disability.
The University’s Disability Services team make student accessibility their priority. When a new student with disability enrols and registers with Disability Services, they can access support through accessibility and academic adjustments. Disability Services work with students to ensure that they are able to independently complete their studies with adequate assistance to balance support with personal autonomy and responsibility. This includes things like arranging accessible exam venues, help with writing lecture notes, and timetable management.
Lecture recordings can be a life-saver for students who miss a lecture or two, but did you know they also afford students with hearing, learning, vision and physical impairments great flexibility in how they engage with lecture content? The speed up/down feature isn’t for cramming, but to help students adjust to suit their learning. There is also the option for students with profound deafness to use live remote captioning, which was introduced into lecture theatres in 2009.
Nine percent of Sydney students indicate that they use accessibility tools in Canvas. This means all University technology and online platforms must be (by default) accessible for students with disabilities. This includes multi-language captioning, alternative text, more diverse modalities and smoother navigation as standard practice – rather than as added features.
But accessibility through learning platforms isn’t always technology-driven. Fisher Library underwent a disability-driven makeover to include things like braille signage, tactile indicators on lifts and voice floor indicators. An Assistive Technology Lab was also installed, which includes myriad technologies like a Braille embosser, electric height-adjustable desks and tactile image makers.
The current Disability Action Plan 2013-2018 is undergoing evaluation. Students, staff, and alumni will be called upon in the coming months to contribute their feedback and, in turn, help develop the new DAP for 2019-2024.
Several modes of feedback are planned, including focus groups, online surveys, and a phone number for those preferring to call – keep an eye out for these and contact Terri Mears with any queries.