News & Events

Student Voice feature article

Perspectives on disability and student learning

Saima Nazar Khan

Having a disability can enable appreciation of different perspectives of those in the throes of “illness”, and those observing them (for example, a carer, friend or family member). This may be particularly true in the context of “invisible” disabilities; for example, mental illness. That is, when one is experiencing an illness, their perspective is different from that of the person observing them. Thus, the two perspectives looking inside–out and outside–in are different, each from the other.

Asking, delving, and talking about the nature of experience is a difficult undertaking, almost akin to Alice visiting Wonderland. As entering, or getting to know, the quagmire of what is called the psyche or the soul—from within and from without—are two very different experiences or challenges. To understand the experience of someone who has a mental health condition or “disability”, on their terms, in their language, with their nuances and idiosyncrasies, we perhaps need to look inside–out as well as outside–in.­ I would like to suggest that both perspectives are equally important to enable learning and discovery.

Pull quote: The nature of learning needs to be informed by the nature of human experience.

As every student’s subjective experience is different from the other, the nature of this subjective experience needs to inform the nature of learning. It is important to consider the lived experience of people with mental health challenges to both learn about the conditions and challenges they are facing but also what they find “easy” or “difficult” in terms of learning and acquiring knowledge while they are experiencing their mental health challenge or disability.

Due to COVID-19, the dynamics of the learning experiences have changed rapidly, shifting from a shared or collective experience to one that is highly individualised. The individual student learning alone on the laptop or workstation, rather than together in a classroom, tutorial, or lecture. This experience has impacted students with disabilities disproportionately. However, in this global pandemic experience, the voice of students with disabilities, their learnings, their challenges, and their personal learning victories, seem to me, to be pivotal in understanding the nature and goals of learning per se and also learning about the nature and scope of disability itself. The interaction and dialogue between disability and learning opens new frontiers in the understanding of thought, and workings of the human mind.

Pull quote: To understand the experience of someone who has a mental health condition ... we need to look inside–out as well as outside–in.­

Let me explore Major Depression as a condition impacting students and ask the question:

How does experiencing depression inform a learners’ acquisition of skills, knowledge and ideas?

In my opinion—in the science of learning about the human mind and human nature—the value of the lived experience is crucial. This knowledge about the nature of lived experience should inform the protocols of learning. That is, focusing on both the factors that enable learning and those factors that deter learning for students with disabilities and mental health challenges. This can only be understood by giving voice to the lived experience of students facing mental health challenges such as depression. This undertaking needs to inform curriculum, planning and pedagogy.

Human experience is shaded by the different colors of cultures and ways of living, which are found in a diverse and heterogonous postmodern world. Yet the ways in which human experience are modified and shaped by “illnesses” or “disability” needs further exploration. The nature of learning needs to be informed by the nature of human experience. Learning can be transformed by the understanding of the phenomenon of pain and its after effects. The lived experience of people with disabilities is, and can be, transformative in our understanding of how learning is enabled and enhanced and the factors that enable or disable learning.

Making connections between students with disabilities and their subjective experience of mental health challenges, opens an entire vista of learning and imagination. This can open new worlds of discovery and knowledge formation. It also enables a more empathetic approach to dealing with individuals who have disabilities and challenges. To do this we need to look both ways — inside-out as well as outside-in.

About the author

Saima Nazar Khan is a trained teacher and counsellor, currently in her final year of the Diploma in Counselling at Murdoch University. Saima is passionate about advocating for people with mental illness and challenging the stigma associated with psychosocial disability.

Read Saima’s personal story in the My Story: Student Voice series


Nelson, J., & Harwood, H. (2011). A Meta-Analysis of Parent and Teacher Reports of Depression Among students with Learning Disabilities: Evidence for the Importance of Multi-Informant Assessment. Psychology in Schools, 48(4). 371–384. doi: 10.1002/pits.20560

Sukhai, M., and Mohler, C.E. (2016). Creating a Culture of Accessibility in the Sciences. Elsevier Academic Press.

Posted 18 November 2021 Posted in Culturally and linguistically diverse, Disability, General, My Story — Student Voice