In the past 2 or 3 decades universities in Australia (and elsewhere) have opened their doors to a wider variety of students than in the past. Universities are accountable to the government for their level of success in widening participation and making higher education more accessible. Research has shown that the widening participation agenda has resulted in many more non-traditional students being able to access a university education. The number of women, Indigenous students, students from a low SES background, first-in-family to attend university, and students with a disability are equity groups whose numbers have grown, particularly in the last 10 years.
However, the equity group that we know least about is students with a disability. Many such students choose not to disclose their disability to their institution which makes it difficult to determine how many such students there are, and to provide assistance to this group. These students constitute a hidden population. Colleagues and I have been researching this group, and last year published an article which examined “Non-disclosing students with disabilities or learning challenges: characteristics and size of a hidden population” [free download]
This morning the next piece of research from this project has been released and it is also available as a free download. “University student perspectives on institutional non-disclosure of disability and learning challenges: reasons for staying invisible” examines why students choose non-disclosure and offers suggestions for how universities might better support students who choose not to disclose their disability.
Students with disabilities (SWD) in Australian higher education need to disclose to their institution to access a range of ‘reasonable adjustments’ to support their learning. Nationally, 5.8% of the university population disclose their disability to their institution. It is suspected that there is a much larger population of students who choose non-disclosure, and therefore decide not to access support. Very little is known about the reasons for non-disclosure as this group represents a hidden population in higher education. The research reported here is based on a survey of undergraduate students in one regional Australian university where disability was reframed as ‘learning challenge’. This identified the institutionally non-disclosed group. This research identified that there were sound reasons for non-disclosure, students continually weigh up potential disclosure during their study, and students have difficulty with the disclosure process. We conclude that institutions need to understand that they have an invisible group of non-disclosing SWD in their student populations and that, to meet their learning challenges, universities need to support changes to policies, procedures and curriculum design.