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The Disability Information & Support team in 2011. Back row from left: Emma Holt, Eileen O’Regan, Helen Ingrams. Front: Jenny Week, Donna-Rose McKay, Kim Daufratshofer. Photo by Graham Warman, courtesy of University of Otago Marketing & Communications.

The Disability Information & Support team in 2011. Back row from left: Emma Holt, Eileen O’Regan, Helen Ingrams. Front: Jenny Week, Donna-Rose McKay, Kim Daufratshofer. Photo by Graham Warman, courtesy of University of Otago Marketing & Communications.

There were many changes to the university in the 1980s and 1990s. They included developments which had a revolutionary impact for one sector of the community – people with physical impairments. Making the university more accessible to students and staff with disabilities did not happen early and did not happen fast, but steady growth in awareness and action led, eventually, to a new world of possibilities.

The stories of students with disabilities in the late 20th century reveal the enormous determination required to complete a qualification before some of the advances in technology we now take for granted. It must have been even more difficult for earlier generations.

Barry Kirkland was Otago’s first profoundly deaf graduate, completing a BSc and BCom (Hons) in 1993. He had no special support during lectures in the 1980s, having to rely on written handouts from lecturers and looking at visual presentations. Special grants enabled him to buy a portable computer – then a very expensive item – while studying for his second degree. Other students typed lecture notes for him on this. He appreciated the help he received from them and from university staff, but what deaf students really needed, he suggested, was interpreters. He also noted the significant prejudice against deaf people in the community, with deafness often equated with a lack of intelligence. The media was full of misinformation, and seldom gave positive coverage of the achievements or needs of the deaf. Kirkland’s own achievements would, he hoped, encourage others with disabilities to take on the challenges of university study.

John Kaye was already studying at Otago when he became a ventilator-dependent tetraplegic after a rugby injury in 1984. He was forced to abandon his plans to become a surveyor, but returned to university in 1988 to study computer science – he had learned to operate a wheelchair and computer using his mouth. Writing in 1991, Kaye noted the benefits his studies brought: “I have found that attending university has improved my attitude towards life. Achieving has made a big difference to my self esteem.” His positive attitude helped him overcome many obstacles. He found that planning well in advance meant his lectures and tutorials could be allocated to accessible venues, and lecturers would arrange for special assistance, including lecture notes or the audio taping of classes. After gaining a BA in computer science in 1998 he developed an interest in classics, going on to complete a Diploma for Graduates and Postgraduate Diploma in Arts. By 2008, when the ODT featured a story on Kaye, he was planning a masters degree.

An earlier wheelchair-using student did not find the university staff quite so cooperative. Donna-Rose Harris began her studies in the late 1970s. She later recalled: “My long-suffering friends pulled me up two or three flights of stairs twice a week to the top of the Quad Geology Building to my stats lecture because they refused to move the lecture to somewhere more accessible.” Like Kirkland and Kaye, Harris was determined and intelligent and went on to achieve several qualifications: she graduated BA in 1981, BCom in 1985, and then went on to a Posgraduate Diploma in Arts.

Harris – who later became Donna-Rose McKay – went on to a pioneering role in disability services for the university. She was appointed part-time to the new job of disabilities coordinator in 1992. The university’s first efforts to take the needs of people with impairments seriously had begun some ten years earlier. In 1982 a “useful booklet for disabled students” was produced for the Student Services Committee, assisted by Works and Services. Among other things, it listed wheelchair-accessible toilets and buildings with ramps. As the staff newsletter commented, “there is a formidable list of areas where wheelchairs cannot be propelled,” but “the future for the disabled student looks bright.” Some existing facilities were being upgraded to remove barriers, and more thought was going into the design of new buildings.

Publicising the help available was also a priority – many students were not aware of assistance the university could provide for them. Various staff members volunteered to liaise on issues of concern. The Disabled Action and Support Group, established in 1987, provided a new mechanism of support. A couple of years later it established an Academic Facilitation Fund, which provided money to pay for individual assistance, such as extra tutoring (though not for equipment). There was a growing demand for such support: “Each year increasing numbers of students with disabilities are enrolling at Otago, and they can be found among the full range of university departments,” reported a 1990 staff newsletter. That year the university appointed Coralie Kirkland to produce a report on existing students with disabilities at Otago. She found that about a third of students with impairments had mobility problems, and another third had vision loss, hearing loss or specific learning disabilities. The most frequent difficulties reported by students were inability to read overhead transparencies and inability to hear lecturers.

Kirkland recommended the appointment of a permanent liaison officer for disabilities and the establishment of a student learning centre. Meanwhile, new government policy was requiring the university to take the needs of the disabled into account. The university’s first Equal Employment Opportunities management plan, prepared by EEO Co-ordinator Kris Smith and approved in 1991, included recommendations relating to staff and students with impairments. In response to these reports, the university appointed Rachel Ford as a temporary part-time Disabilities Facilitation Officer in 1991, with Donna-Rose Harris becoming the first permanent staff member dedicated to people with disabilities in 1992.

From these tentative beginnings the disabilities support service grew to become the impressive operation it is today. By 1996 Harris’s role was full-time and in 1998 a project officer and administrator were added to the team. As funding and staffing grew, the service was able to take a more strategic role in making the campus more inclusive, rather than simply responding to the urgent needs of students who came through the door. Staff advocated for students with impairments, but also supported them to be as independent as possible. Co-ordinating learning support has always been a key role of the service, with many casual staff – mostly fellow students – employed as note-takers or interpreters or tutors.

Many people have had their path through university made smoother through what is now known as Disability Information and Support. By 2010 there were around 850 Otago students with a disability affecting their study and 25,500 hours of learning assistance provided. The support team was still led by Donna-Rose McKay who, in addition to her effectiveness, served as a living reminder of the potential capabilities of a woman with highly visible disabilities. Her death after a short illness in 2013 was a great loss to Otago, but her legacy remains an inspiration (you can read tributes to her in this Bulletin article). Do you have any stories to share of the history of the disabilities service, or life as a student with impairments in the days before support services?