Resilience/Thriving in Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities
Written by Dr Rahul Ganguly, Dr Charlotte Bronwlow, Dr Jan Du Preez and Dr Coralie Graham, University of Southern Queensland
Across most universities in Australia, students with a disability have been enrolling in greater numbers than ever before. However, the scholarship and research on equity in the Australian higher education sector has largely ignored the needs of these students. The overarching goal of this study was to explore and describe the lived experiences of students with a self-disclosed disability enrolled at a regional university in Australia. Given the paucity of research on the subject in Australia, the study was conducted in two stages. In stage one, a web-based survey was used to gather data on socio-demographics, disability characteristics, career optimism, wellbeing, academic satisfaction, and resilience from students with self-disclosed disability at one regional Australian university. In stage two, interviews were conducted with 30 students with self-disclosed disabilities (GPA ≥ 5.5) to gain an in-depth understanding of the strategies used by these students to negotiate barriers to participation in higher education settings.
Descriptive statistics and Structural Equation Modelling were used to analyse the survey data. Thematic analysis was done with the interview data. A description of the key findings are listed below. Due to the small sample size and self-reported data, the findings needs to be interpreted with some caution. Additionally, this study was conducted at one University, and hence findings cannot be generalised to other universities in Australia.
Key Findings: Stage 1 – Web-based Survey
- The sample included 274 students who had self-disclosed their disability either during the university enrolment process and/or registered with the university’s Disability Resources Office (DRO) upon enrolment.
- The sample predominantly consisted of mature-age university students with a selfreported disability, a group that has not received much attention in the literature. About 70 percent of these students were above 30 years of age. The age of the participants ranged from 17 to 72 years, with an average age of 38 years. Additionally, the sample had more female students (n = 178; 65%) than male students (n = 96; 35%).
- Over a third of the sample (n = 94; 34%), who had self-identified their disability/condition during the university enrolment process, reported not self-disclosing their disability to the DRO. Furthermore, nearly 50 percent of the sample (n = 89) who self-disclosed their disability to the DRO reported not using disability-related support services since their time of self-disclosure.
- Students with a self-reported psychological conditions constituted the largest group of survey respondents. Thirty-three percent of the sample (n = 90) self-identified with a psychological condition as their primary disability category. Further, fifty-five percent of the sample (n = 150) had one or more comorbid conditions. Overall, the sample included more students with self-reported “hidden disabilities” than those with sensory or physical “visible” disabilities.
- In this sample, three out of every four students reported pursuing their education online and/or via an online/on-campus option (n = 208; 76%).
- Students with self-reported GPA ≥ 5.5 scored significantly higher on resilience and academic satisfaction scales, than students with self-reported GPA < 5.5. Although scores on career optimism and wellbeing scale were higher for students with GPA ≥ 5.5 than those with GPA < 5.5, the difference did not approach significance at 0.05 levels.
- The relationship between resilience, academic satisfaction, wellbeing, career optimism and academic achievement was not direct. Although resilience was directly and significantly related to academic satisfaction and wellbeing, it was not directly related to achievement. Similarly, resilience was directly and significantly related to wellbeing and career optimism, but not directly related to achievement.
Key Findings: Stage 2 – Interviews with 30 academically high-achieving students (Grade Point Average ≥ 5.5)
- The findings indicated that academically high-achieving students share many common individual characteristics. These characteristics included taking personal responsibility for their actions, having a good personal social network, perseverance, resourcefulness, and having pragmatic expectations of self and life.
- Across all interviews, student with a disability attributed most of their perceived barriers to academic success to external environmental factors rather than to individual factors. Reported perceived external barriers included being misunderstood by teaching staff, unsupportive attitudes of university administrative staff, inaccessible course materials, peer ridicule, financial difficulties, low expectations, frequent staff turnover in DRO, health, counselling, and other needed support services, and not receiving assessment adjustments on time. Among the individual factors, managing the side effects of the disability-related medication was the most commonly cited barrier.
- The findings indicated that most high-achieving students used their attributes, and their personal and social network to negotiate successfully most of the environmental barriers that impeded their academic success in the university. For some of these students, the DRO played a critical role in making the course materials accessible. Reported strategies to negotiate perceived academic barriers included peer and family support, self-discipline, perseverance, adaptability, resourcefulness, accepting their disability, and setting and revaluating short-term
- The findings indicated that academically high-achieving students are strategic learners. When faced with a situation that impeded their academic progress, these students had the acumen to identify the critical adverse factor. Rather than using a generalised strategy, they selected contextually specific strategies in their repertoire and persevered with it until the adversity was mitigated.
- There is a need to conduct longitudinal studies in examining this issue. Also, future research needs to focus on examining attitudes and teaching practices of academics.
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