Disability discrimination in the spotlight

The recent case of a university discriminating against a student by failing to take into account her mental health disabilities, is a reminder that schools need to be aware of the wide range of impairments that can put students at a disadvantage.

The Sydney Morning Herald this week reported that the University of Newcastle had discriminated against a student who had borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder.

The University was found to have discriminated against the student by declining her an extension of time to complete her degree and failing to take into account her “extreme anxiety in relation to sitting exams [and] performance assessments’’.

Notably the three-member tribunal found the university had granted another student who had a poor academic record a 12-month extension, yet denied BKY an 18-month extension.  That student had failed eight subjects, whereas BKY had failed four, and was allowed to withdraw from another five subjects without penalty.

The case stresses the need for schools to have proper procedures and policies in place when evaluating a student’s disability and in particular to ensure consistency in application of these procedures and policies.

A school should note the wide range of disabilities – whether they be physical, intellectual, psychiatric, sensory, neurological or learning-related.

It is important that schools consult with students and their parents/carers about their disabilities in order to assess what reasonable adjustments can be made, such as modifications to facilities or resources, to enable the student to participate in everyday activities.

While for students with a physical disability these adjustments can include ramps, disabled toilet facilities and easier access to classrooms, this case highlights the steps that schools may be expected to follow when dealing with students with psychological or emotional disabilities.





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