Australians with a disability experience poorer education and employment outcomes when compared to those without one. Price Waterhouse Cooper’s (PwC’s) ‘Skills for Australia’ have recently released an environmental scan on this important topic.
In addition a joint report by three agencies has examined the access and outcomes for young people from 15 to 25 years old experiencing disadvantage in New South Wales. These include those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background, those experiencing homelessness, young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds, and those with disabilities.
VET provides important pathways into further education and work for these groups as well as a way out of welfare dependency.
The challenges and barriers
The aim of these two reports is to look at ways those with disability, or who are disadvantaged in other ways, can access education and training and gain the skills and knowledge they need to work productively and live more fulfilling lives. For many just trying to complete the course can be challenging. Dropout rates are often high.
Those with a disability or other disadvantages face a multitude of challenges and barriers. The first is a real reluctance to disclose their disability or disadvantage for fear of discrimination. Other challenges include a lack of flexibility in course structures, in meeting their learning needs and being flexible about when and how courses are delivered and assessed. Physical facilities, including buildings and classrooms, also need to be accessible. As the PwC environmental scan points out:
“People with disability seeking service or support often need additional specialist support, sometimes as a result of comorbidities with other conditions. For these individuals, the challenge of accessing connected, tailored support often precludes their inclusion.”
The same applies to those with other disadvantages. It really requires VET providers and their practitioners to be well linked into a wide range of available support services and expertise both inside and beyond the provider. Staff also need to understand each student’s particular needs and the variety of support agencies needing to be involved in meeting comorbidity needs means that a ‘case management’ approach is warranted.
These students also need that personal connection with teachers and other students that only face-to-face can provide. In addition, their circumstances may mean that they do not have access to a computer or the internet.
In summary, the three issues that PwC’s environmental scan has identified are: first, there are low levels of awareness and understanding about what disability is. Second, there are also low levels of awareness and understanding of the range of different strategies required and available for support. Third, accessibility and inclusion strategies are poorly implemented in practice.
These same issues apply to those who are disadvantaged in other ways too.
The particular challenges faced by young people
According to the NSW report the challenges young disadvantaged people face include:
“financial constraints, socio-economic factors, geographical remoteness and limited literacy and numeracy skills. These barriers are often exacerbated by funding rules, lack of information and difficulties with navigating the complex service systems.”
Overcoming disadvantage is about making successful transitions. It’s also about getting the support they need to overcome the problems they face in accessing and completing VET programs. These supports need to be targeted and specific.
First, it’s important to remember that all is not ‘doom and gloom’. Many disabled and disadvantaged students have a rewarding VET experience, get a real confidence boost and gain productive work at the end. But both providers and students face a set of complex challenges to get good outcomes.
One key solution is overcoming misconceptions and changing attitudes – including those of potential employers about those with a disability or other disadvantages. Providers can work productively with employers to support them as the students move from study and into employment. Most of all, it is about focusing on what the students can do, not what they can’t.
It also needs fit-for-purpose systems and support services to be developed that serve these individuals better. Better collaboration and referral services between VET providers and other support agencies are vital.
For disadvantaged young people in particular the NSW report points to the up-front course fees that can be a significant barrier to participation. They also need that personal and sympathetic contact with teaching staff. This means that teaching and support staff alike need the professional development that will help them work with and support these student groups better.