Beyond labels

Staff and students with disabilities may experience a range of disabilities and health conditions. These disabilities or health conditions may be visible and invisible, permanent or temporary, chronic or episodic.

As staff, having a basic understanding of some of the more common disabilities or health conditions and their potential functional impacts is useful. The information below outlines seven main areas of disability or health conditions and is meant as a guide only. We encourage staff to consider inclusive strategies beyond medical diagnoses or labels.

Autism spectrum disorders are neuro-developmental disorders which can affect social skills and communication, and can impact on behaviours and interests. They include Autistic Disorder or autism, Asperger’s Disorder or Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified or PDDNOS.

Prevalence estimates vary widely as autism spectrum disorders have become more recognised; it is more prevalent in males, with about four males for every female with a diagnosis. Current research indicates that approximately one in 100 people have an autism spectrum disorder.

Some things to consider

People with an autism spectrum disorder have many strengths, which include:

  • sustained and heightened attention to detail on topics of interest
  • good rote memory
  • forthrightness in communications
  • adherence to routines and rules when appropriate structure is in place.

People with an autism spectrum disorder may also experience challenges due to the core characteristics of austism spectrum disorder and the secondary problems that are common in these conditions. These include:

  • challenges to the three core characteristics of austism spectrum disorder, which are related to the social, communication and behavioural areas
  • secondary programs relating to emotional, cognitive, sensory and motor difficulties
  • some other groups that may also have these problems are students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), students with specific learning difficulties and students with mental health problems.

Useful links

According to Deafness Forum Australia, approximately one in six Australians has a significant hearing loss.

Within this population, most individuals have some level of hearing impairment with a smaller group identifying as deaf. People who use Australian Sign Language (Auslan) prefer to be referred to as ‘deaf’ rather than as ‘hard of hearing’. They see this as a positive identity rather than a negative label.

For deaf people who use Auslan and who were born deaf, English is a second language. They may or may not have exceptional English language skills as this has been their second language. All deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals will have varying language and communication abilities and the impact of hearing loss and degree of deafness will vary.

Some things to consider

  • Students may have a clear understanding of their needs and a range of strategies to deal with their disability.
  • Assistive technology is often instrumental in assisting students to capture information in alternative formats. For example, captioning and listening devices.
  • Ensure all materials (including course information, website information, marketing materials) are in accessible formats, including captioned videos and transcripts.
  • Discuss with the staff or student ideal options for full participation in tutorials and practicums. For example, ensure interpreters or captioning have been organised, ensure lectures are captioned. Are listening devices needed or available?  What information is needed to ensure other staff and students are mindful of the needs of students who are deaf or hard of hearing such as managing background noise or competing voices in  tutorials, meetings or other forums?

Useful teaching strategies for deaf and hard of hearing students can be found on the ADCET Hearing Impairment and Deafness page.

Griffith University has had a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Student Support Program for more than 30 years and customises support and activities for this cohort of students. Staff coordinate the provision of:

  • Auslan interpreting services
  • laptop services
  • alternative exam arrangements
  • reasonable adjustments for professional placements, internships and other workplace arrangements
  • transcription of audio visual material if not already captioned
  • access to assistive listening devices (FM systems).

Engaging interpreters

Find out about protocols for engaging Auslan interpreters and captioning services at Griffith.

Find out more

A learning disability can impact the way learners receive and process information.

Research indicates that at least five per cent of higher education students have a learning disability that can cause significant difficulties for perceiving or processing auditory, visual or spatial information. The most common learning disability found in the higher education environment is dyslexia. Other learning disabilities are dysgraphia, aphasia and auditory processing disorders.

Students with learning disabilities face  a wide range of challenges, however, not all will experience every one of these issues:

  • Impact on short-term memory and cognitive processing. This means that students may have difficulty following sequences or complicated directions and may have issues integrating material from a number of sources.
  • Challenges in following or creating a sequence. This means that students may have difficulty following and understanding the structure of a lecture; remembering facts presented chronologically; and/or seeing the relationship between a main idea and subordinate ideas in a text.
  • Information overload and confusion resulting from having (and having to hold onto) more ideas than they can manage to translate into acceptable words or structures.
  • Difficulty with the ‘search and locate’ strategies required in library work and in independent learning generally.
  • Slow reading rate and reading comprehension.
  • Impact on visual memory skills. By comparison, their oral language and discussion skills are often exceptional, although students with learning disabilities are likely to be extremely reluctant to read aloud.
  • Manual dexterity or coordination problems, which often present as a result of difficulties in judging distance or spatial awareness.
  • Heightened anxiety levels, which are common in test or performance situations.

Some things to consider

  • Students with diagnosed learning difficulties—especially from primary school onwards—may have a range of strategies to deal with their disability. A new tertiary environment, however, will still be challenging.
  • Assistive technology is often instrumental in assisting students with Learning Disabilities to read, store, comprehend, organise and undertake assessment in the tertiary study environment.
  • Some people may not realise that they have a learning disability and may need to access a formal assessment to determine the nature and impact of their disability on their studies. Students may face a wide range of challenges and not all students will experience all of these issues.

Useful resources for students

Useful links

There are a wide range of chronic medical conditions and neurological conditions which can impact students and staff. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that one in five Australians is affected by chronic diseases such as arthritis, asthma, back problems, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and mental health conditions.

There are also a wide range of neurological conditions which affect a person’s nervous system including the brain, spinal cord, nerves, joints and muscles. Examples include multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, motor neuron disease, migraines and acquired brain injuries.

The impact of these conditions on people may vary depending on the nature and severity of the condition.

Some things to consider

  • People with such conditions are very aware of their symptoms and have worked out ways to manage their condition daily, but may need additional adjustments for the tertiary environment.
  • Most people with chronic conditions are organised and have coping strategies in place but the tertiary environment can add additional complexities.
  • The condition may be invisible to others.
  • The condition may be misunderstood by others, or carry a stigma (for example, mental illness).
  • The disease may have physical and/or psychological impacts that affect study. For example, mobility may be affected, or the student may experience chronic pain or anxiety.
  • Stress can exacerbate symptoms.
  • Chronic illness may by managed through a range of strategies: medication (which can have side effects that impact study); by lifestyle management (regular meals, sleep, exercise, rest breaks, occupational therapies); or by ongoing treatment (regular outpatient or inpatient treatment)
  • managing chronic illness can be expensive and can limit work opportunities. This is particularly difficult for students on already reduced incomes.
  • Symptoms may fluctuate and impact on study (for example, a serious asthma attack could result in a hospital visit).
  • The disease may be terminal or in a state of deterioration (for example, cancer or motor neuron disease).

Useful links

Mental illnesses encompass a range of conditions that significantly affect how a person feels, thinks, behaves and interacts with others. Examples include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (source: Department of Health).

Around half of the population will experience a mental illness at some stage of their life and about one in five people will experience some form of mental health problem each year. About one in every hundred people will develop schizophrenia at some time in their lives, and up to two in every hundred will develop bipolar disorder (source: Sane Australia).

Most people with mental illnesses manage their condition well and live full and productive lives. The World Health Organization encourages a focus on mental health, which is 'a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.'

Again, the tertiary environment can be new and challenging and so this can exacerbate mental illness.

Some things to consider

  • Mental illness is treatable and manageable.
  • Students will generally have strategies for managing their illness under stress.
  • Griffith has a range of support options available including on-campus health services (including mental health nurses and psychologists) and a counselling service.
  • There is a stigma attached to mental illness, which causes people experiencing mental illness to be wary of disclosure.
  • Mental illness is invisible.
  • Mental illness is misunderstood and people often have negative connotations of those who experience mental illness.
  • Many young people may only develop mental health symptoms during their commencement of study since many mental illnesses tend to impact people in the 18-30 age group.
  • Mental illness is also situational and therefore can be brought on by, or exacerbated by, trauma, family breakdowns, stress and so on.

Useful links

Many people experience conditions which impact their physical functioning, mobility, dexterity, or stamina. Examples include spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, amputation and musculoskeletal injuries such as back injuries.

Some things to consider

  • Students and staff with physical mobility issues are well-versed in their needs and know what they can do and what they have challenges with. Don’t assume; ask.
  • Assistive technology and adaptations to the physical environment (including voice-activated software, screen readers, modified equipment, ramps, automatic doors) are often instrumental in assisting students with mobility issues.

The physical environment is often the most challenging especially if architecture and environment do not meet ideal standards. Universal Design was originally an architectural concept and has now been adopted across a wide range of areas including learning. Its premise is that what works for one group of people, such as people with disabilities, works for all. For example, a wider doorway entry without stairs and automatic doors serves people in wheelchairs or with limited movement as well as people with prams, people with visual impairments and people delivering bulk items. If you make entrances accessible for one group, it works for everyone.

Challenges for people with mobility issues may include:

  • access to buildings because of stairs, steep inclines, uneven entry ways, poor signage
  • access to buildings/rooms with narrow doorways, heavy doors, or non-levered handles
  • lack of accessible toilets, accessible lifts and narrow hallways
  • lack of access to accessible public transport, including appropriate pathways and lifts to access busways, board buses and to be seated safely
  • uneven, narrow pathways which cannot accommodate wheelchairs, mobility scooters or where someone has a cane or walker
  • lack of access to modified equipment and assistive technologies, such as automatic doors, height adjustable desks, voice activated software, modified mouse and computer board etc.

Griffith University makes every effort to undertake retro-fitting of existing buildings and to ensure that accessibility is central to new construction. Each campus has its own particular challenges, some of which cannot necessarily be addressed, such as the terrain. Ongoing maintenance can take time. You can assist by:

  • Reporting maintenance issues to Facilities Management
  • Know your campus including how to get around
  • Refer students to the Disabilities Service who can assist them by providing notetakers, ensuring lecture and exam spaces are fully accessible and by providing assistive technology or modified equipment as needed.
  • The Disabilities Service also has bookable mobility scooters on each campus.

Useful links

Vision impairment varies between individuals; no two ‘legally blind’ individuals can 'see' the same. The most common vision impairments affect:

  • sharpness or clarity of vision (visual acuity)
  • normal range of what you can see (visual fields)
  • colour.

Legal blindness in Australia means that someone with vision impairment, even with glasses or contact lenses, can see an object at six metres that someone without vision impairment could see from 60 metres. This is called 6/60 vision. Normal vision is 6/6 vision or 20/20 in imperial measures (source: Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind).

Vision impairments can occur as a result of a number of different diseases, conditions or accidents, such as:

  • from congenital eye conditions (present at, or near the time of, birth)
  • from a disease or infection—either a particular eye disease (e.g. glaucoma) or a side effect of another disease (e.g. diabetes, albinism)
  • as a result of accidents or through exposure to UV light or chemicals
  • as a result of ageing (e.g. macular degeneration, cataracts)

While many of us wear corrective lens people with low vision or partial sight (often characterised by blurred vision, blind spots, tunnel vision, or who are blind or legally blind) will need particular support.

Some things to consider

  • Students and staff with low vision or who are blind are well-versed in their needs and know what they can do and what they have challenges with. Don’t assume; ask. Vision Australia has some useful tips for assisting people who have low vision or who are blind.
  • Assistive technology is often instrumental in assisting students with low vision e.g. voice activated software, screen readers, audio materials.
  • The physical environment is often the most challenging especially if architecture and environment do not meet safety standards or do not have suitable options such as tactile signage.

Common adjustments for people with vision impairments include:

  • adjusted lighting
  • assistive technology such as magnifiers, text zoom options, software (such as screen reading programs), hardware (such as retractable monitors)
  • alternative formatting such as large print materials including textbooks, articles and exam papers; or audio formats for lecture notes and course materials
  • Note-takers
  • tactile signage on footpaths, stairs and crossings
  • mobility aids, such as canes
  • seeing-eye dogs (remember, it is illegal to deny certified assistance dogs from entering premises as outlined in the Rights of Seeing Eye Dog users and there is strict etiquette around these animals).

Students experiencing low vision should make early contact with the Disabilities Service to put in place any adjustments they may need to manage their condition. This is particularly important in relation to adjustments, such as alternative formatting and assistive technology, which require lead time.

Useful links