One of the joys, or curses, of being the prime author of The Rebuttal is that people often contact me with their stories. Sadly the stories are often not positive and centre on discrimination and prejudice. Sometimes the stories are about discrimination at work. Sometimes they are about bullying. More recently they have centred on TAFE and TAFE shirking their responsibilities to provide access. For overseas readers who are not familiar, TAFE is the Australian equivalent to a technical college. It largely provides skills based training. In England I believe they are popularly called Polytechnics. Indeed some of our TAFEs are beginning to call themselves Polytechnics. For example, Melbourne Polytechnic.
Access to education is something very close to my heart. As a deaf student I fought long and hard for access to university education. I fought for interpreters and note takers with a group of dedicated deaf students. This was back in the late 80s and early 90s. I was lucky enough to get full access to interpreters in my final year of university. Interestingly enough that was just the beginning of the fight, but that is another story.
Skills based training in Australia is provided by TAFE and private registered training providers. Private providers often will refuse to provide access. They say that to do so will hit their profit margins and make their business unviable. Indeed this is often true. There are no Government funds to support private providers to provide access. They could, if they had enough vision, build access needs into course fees. For example they could make all courses $100 more expensive for all students and this extra funding could be set aside to build an access fund for those times when it is required. Not every course will require funds for access so this extra money could be invested and used to grow a pool of funds to pay for access. It could be done but no private providers, as yet, seem to have taken the initiative. At least as far as I know.
TAFE, on the other hand, are largely funded from state funds with some support from federal governments. While TAFE charge course fees Governments offer funding for a variety of reasons. Usually they target funds to areas that Australia has a skills shortage and these courses become subsidised and cheaper for students.
From whatever funding and income TAFE receives they are expected to fund support for people with a disability. However, this funding is woefully inadequate. University is generally better supported and provide full access. This is funded through the Higher Education Disability Support Funding provided by the Federal Government. While this pool of funds is helpful I believe that most universities still have to pay from their own funds as the funding does not fully meet their disability support costs. Despite this, universities generally provide full support but there are some incidences when they do not.
I am often contacted by students, TAFE teachers, interpreters and the like who ask for advice as to how to make TAFE accept its responsibilities to provide full support to deaf students. I hear some awful stories. Often students ask me if they can use their NDIS funding to fund interpreters for TAFE. This was the case recently where a large Victorian TAFE refused to provide interpreting for a field placement.
I am not sure of the logic behind this. One would think that a field placement is an integral part of the learning process and that full communication support would be provided for deaf students. I mean this is where they learn to put skills and knowledge into practice. This is where they learn to be part of a team. This is where there are real safety risks and they must receive accurate instruction and understand it so they do not put themselves and others at risk. Yet for whatever reason TAFE will decline interpreting support for students on placement. It is really dangerous and one day a deaf student is going to do him/herself or others harm because they simply did not fully understand safe procedures. Who is going to be liable then.
So this is what happened last week, The student in desperation was wanting to use their NDIS funding for the placement. They asked me if they could. I could only tell them no. This is because education instruction and learning is generally not covered by the NDIS. It is TAFE responsibility. I dug a little deeper and I found some really awful stories where TAFE are allegedly putting students and interpreters at risk in a desperate attempt to meet budget restrictions. Here are some examples.
- Interpreters being asked to interpret alone for long periods rather than in tandem as conditions dictate. Apparently interpreters are advised to observe regular breaks and ensure they do not put their health and safety at risk. I am not sure what the interpreters are supposed to do. Just stop the training regularly so that they can have a rest. Of course this is not viable and expecting interpreters to interpret for long periods alone is going to lead to burn-out and injuries. ( I am well aware that some of the reason for this might be due to the high demand and lack of supply in regards to interpreters.)
- Stories of interpreters being pulled from one campus and moved to another leaving students who require interpreting at the home campus without any support.
- Stories of interpreting only being provided for parts of the course and students being expected to make do for the parts of the course where interpreters are not funded.
Deaf students are clearly being disadvantaged. I can understand that TAFEs are underfunded and struggling to meet the full cost but this is really no excuse. Deaf students have the right to full access and not just partial access. They have the right to have access to every part of their course including field placements. Equally important interpreters need to be looked after. They should not be made to interpret alone when two interpreters are required. Lack of funding cannot be used as an excuse. TAFE and the governments as a collective need to do something to ensure deaf students receive full access.
So what other advice did I give the student who had no access to interpreting for their field placement? Well I told them they should not use their NDIS funds as I know the NDIS would frown upon this. I told them, and this is laughable, that their only option if TAFE refused to come to the party was to make a disability discrimination complaint under State or Federal Disability Discrimination law. By this I mean Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission or the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Laughable? Why? Well because our Disability discrimination law is cack. I mean the student can make a complaint and it might take a few months for the respective Commission to do anything about it. By this time their placement would be over or their course will be finished. Even after a few months all the respective Commission can do is try to arrange conciliation. Even then TAFE can, if they so desire, simply refuse to attend the conciliation. Then what? Well the student can chose to go to court and at great expense if they lose the case.
I believe if it was to go to court that TAFE would lose. That Governments would be embarrassed and forced to provide the funding that is needed. BUT it takes a brave person to risk their hard earned money at court level. It is when things progress to court that people with a disability largely give up.
So what next? I really do not know. TAFE must provide. Governments must provide. Perhaps this being a Victorian election year one could try to get a commitment from the Government to ensure full access.
It might be a bit late now given the election is just a weeks away. In the meantime deaf students at TAFE are being disadvantaged. Interpreters at TAFE seem to be having their health and safety compromised. It sucks and it’s time that this blatant discrimination ended.