It goes without saying that students with a physical disability face challenges that their non-disabled peers don’t have to. Some of these are obvious, whilst others are less so. To pinpoint the needs of physically disabled students and cater to them, Australian school communities must be prepared to discuss these needs with the student in question, their parents, and any relevant health professionals.

Such students may need facilities like height adjustable desks, larger classrooms, specialised technology or specific services such as a note-taker to help complete exams, tests, and tasks during class, if their ability to type or write is affected. In some cases, a student may need assistance with toileting, general personal care and hygiene. Of course, every student’s situation is different, and this must be taken into account: there can be no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to disability.

But beyond these things, physically impaired students need something else if they are to thrive at school. They need staff and students who are committed to including them in school life, who are willing to learn about what it’s like to live as they do, what challenges they face, and who are eager to find solutions which help them to be independent at school and elsewhere.

Solutions can be inexpensive and simple to organise. Narrow corridors and a lack of handrails can make it difficult for physically impaired students to move about. Where possible, hand rails could be added and doors could be fitted with a swing mechanism that allows students to easily push doors open and closed with their chairs, or, (if you have the resources), with the press of a button, or by installing automatic doors. This may seem unimportant, but it means that a person with a physical disability doesn’t always have to ask someone for help. If a person is given the tools to help themselves as much as possible, they can feel liberated. This notion applies to everyone, but especially to those who do not have certain freedoms that come naturally to others.

Physically disabled students often have difficulty organising and putting away the material they need for class. Many schools employ a teacher’s aide to help them use this equipment and have it ready at the start of each lesson. This is fine, but why not ask other students to take it in turns to help get equipment out of a student’s bag or locker? When classmates assist where possible, a bond is likely to form, and those with physical disabilities feel less isolated from their peers.  Non-disabled students also have the opportunity to interact with and learn about someone they might not otherwise meet.

Young students, especially teenagers, can feel that their disability isolates them from others. After all, disability singles you out as different, at a time in life when many experience peer pressure, the desire or need to conform, to be “like everyone else”, rather than “the odd one out.” Moreover, there are few positive representations of disability in the media, which show the disabled going about their lives as others do, in spite of their disability. Expose students and staff to media where people who have a disability are represented, encourage disabled students to share their experiences, and encourage nondisabled and disabled students to ask respectful questions of each other. We need to reinforce the idea that normality is a fantasy; there is always and only difference. This difference shouldn’t be hidden, but accommodated, and indeed celebrated. Only then can the challenges and the isolation faced by disabled students be lessened.

About the Author

PhD in European Languages and Cultures (specialising in Literary Translation) Department of International Studies Macquarie University