Seeing a different future for people with disability

TAFE student Gabriel Gervasoni doesn’t want other students to face the same set of challenges as him. The 20-year-old knows more about life’s challenges than most people his age.

He was born completely blind but began to develop some navigational vision at around 18 months old. That vision gradually improved over the next few years to the point where he was considered to have low vision or a vision impairment. But that reprieve wasn’t to last. He started to lose the gains he’d made to the point where now he is legally blind.

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES: Gabriel Gervasoni achieving results at TAFE after advocating for a safe and equal environment.

“I am told that my most likely prognosis is that I will be completely blind by the time that I am 40,” he told a parliamentary committee earlier this year. The Legislative Assembly’s Economy and Infrastructure Committee spent more than eight months examining the barriers to participating in Technical and Further Education (TAFE) for Victorians with disability.

Labour force participation is only 53 per cent for people with disabilities.

The Committee received nearly 40 submissions and spoke to more than 60 witnesses. Gabriel was one of them. His TAFE journey began at Federation TAFE in Ballarat. “This was a very inclusive campus and program, and I thrived there. I received a number of academic awards during this time,” he told the Committee. But things changed for Gabriel when he moved to the general TAFE campus.

His Information Technology studies were delayed when the TAFE failed to implement a range of modifications that would improve accessibility and allow him to safely navigate the campus.

It took sustained pressure from Gabriel and his supporters to get the TAFE to implement the modifications he needed to access the campus safely, before he managed to begin his studies in semester two.

“The general campus environment is now safe for me, even if it is challenging to navigate at times. I am now happy about the modifications that have been made, although I am very disappointed that it took so much time before they were done,” he said. “It is also a disappointment that so much external pressure from my advocates had to be placed onto the university prior to them agreeing to implement the recommended modifications which allowed me to study in a safe and equal environment.”

A number of the Committee’s recommendations if implemented would ensure that other students have an easier transition to TAFE than Gabriel. Some of those include creating a student passport that transfers information between schools and TAFEs on learners’ strengths and support needs, improving access to assistive technology and providing learners with wraparound support and informal peer networks. Those are among a series of recommendations that are designed to improve the experience and outcomes for people with disability.

FORMULA FOR SUCCESS: Wraparound support and informal peer networks have been recommended to assist learners with disability at TAFE.

Carina Garland, Assistant Secretary, Victorian Trades Hall Council outlined some of the alarming statistics in evidence to the Committee. “One in six people with disabilities live in poverty. They are twice more likely to be unemployed and two and a half times more likely to be underemployed,” she said. “Labour force participation is only 53 per cent for people with disabilities compared to 84 per cent for non-disabled people,” she said.

Emma King, Chief Executive Officer, Victorian Council of Social Service told the Committee that addressing the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ would make a good starting point in the attempt to get more students with disability into the system.

“Some educators are simply uncomfortable with disability. It scares them; they are not trained for it. Some assume people with disabilities are not up to the task,” she told the Committee. “The proverbial too-hard basket is overflowing with applications for jobs and training opportunities penned by people with disabilities,” Ms King said.

The Committee has made a number of recommendations to address this including creating safe spaces to encourage learners with disability to disclose, and training TAFE teachers and frontline staff to improve their disability confidence.

Robbie Johnstone, Senior Strategic Business Analyst, The Gordon told the Committee that research undertaken by The Gordon, Box Hill Institute and Melbourne Polytechnic in 2019 showed students who disclose their disability receive more support and achieve better results.

“That is what we want them to do, succeed.”

“Identification is so important because the evidence from our research shows that students attain better training outcomes when they identify their disability and accessibility needs.” At the moment that only happens about half of the time.

But, Robbie Johnstone said, “when a learner does identify, a disability access plan can ensure that all reasonable adjustments—course modifications, tutoring, assistive technology and other supports—are explored to provide the learner with the greatest opportunity to succeed.”

“That is what we want them to do, succeed,” he said. Gabriel Gervasoni’s experience bears that out. He’s currently studying a Certificate IV in Cybersecurity, and recently obtained an 18-month traineeship with IBM.

BUILDING BETTER: 44 recommendations have been made to improve access to TAFE for learners with disability.

The report into access to TAFE for learners with disability is available at parliament.vic.gov.au/TAFEaccessinquiry

Photos: stock.adobe.com