One of the worst aspects of living with a disability and being unable to work is the social isolation. Being trapped in your home, day after day. The social isolation is a huge causative factor in depression, which goes hand in hand with chronic pain and illness.
To combat this, I recently enrolled in a TAFE course. I investigated the course. I discussed my disease, and how it affected me, with the course convenor. I attended an interview and was offered a place in the course. I enrolled and paid my fees only after I received assurances that the campus was disability friendly, and allowances could and would be made for my mobility issues and physical limitations.
On my enrolment form I ticked the little box that asked ‘Do you have a disability’. Because I ticked that little box, the campus Disability Education Advisor sent me an email and invited me to make a time with her to meet and discuss what accommodations could be made.
I was impressed! How proactive!
However when I called her, she had no idea who I was. She asked me why I wanted to see her. I said because I had received her email. She was confused for a moment and then seemed to understand. Apparently it was an automatically generated email. Ok. Not that proactive. Not on her part, anyway. But the purpose was served, and I made the appointment regardless.
The following day I headed for the Student services building. Only to find that the Disability Education Advisor’s office was located on the first floor. There was no elevator, just a very steep stair case.
Who could possibly have thought that locating the Disability Education Advisor at the top of a huge flight of stairs was a good idea? One would expect that the people who need to meet with her would have disabilities. At least some of those will involve people with mobility issues, such as myself.
This was not starting out well…
Nevertheless, I made the climb up the stairs. It was hard work. I needed a rest at the top. Luckily there were chairs in the waiting room.
I was soon ushered into her office. I decided not to mention the stairs thing. Let’s not start off on a bad note.
Again she asked me what I was here for. I got the distinct impression she had no idea what she was supposed to be doing for me. And being that I was there to get her advice, the first few minutes or our meeting were full of awkward silence!
Then she had a light bulb moment. She told me I needed to prove my disability before she could provide any support.
Reaching for my Disability Support Pension card, I asked her what kind of proof she required.
She said a letter from my doctor. I showed her my card and asked her if that was sufficient. She said no, I needed a letter from my treating doctor stating my diagnosis, and what effect my disease has on my ability to study.
O-Kaaaay. I told her I would get that to her the next time I saw my doctor. I see him at least once every three weeks. I cannot afford to make an extra appointment ($40 out of pocket) just for a letter.
She said she could not help me in any way without it.
This really wasn’t how I was expecting this to go. I wasn’t feeling very ‘supported’.
I had a few basic questions. She could answer none of these questions. She had no helpful suggestions, and in fact questioned why I had enrolled in the course if I had these concerns.
I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but at minimum I would have thought that she would have a map of the campus. That she would be able to direct me to the quickest routes through the campus and to and from the carparks. That she could direct me to places where there is seating, places to rest along the way. That she could point out the elevators or ramps as opposed to stairs. That perhaps, knowing that I had severe Rheumatoid Arthritis, she might have looked up the condition so that she would have even a little knowledge of what health issues I am dealing with, to prepare for our meeting.
These are basic things. Common sense to me, but these things clearly did not occur to her at all.
Clearly this is a training issue, but when there are people living with disability, crying out for employment opportunities, perhaps roles such as these should be filled with people who have a lived experience of disability? People to whom these things would be second nature and obvious.
And then disabled students would be helped and supported, and there would be specialised roles that disabled people are uniquely well placed to perform.