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CQUni professor committed to universal design to benefit all students

CQUni professor committed to universal design to benefit all students

Published:13 September 2017

Professor Denise Wood

CQUniversity is celebrating Disability Action Week, 10 – 16 September, and is promoting this year’s theme ‘Everybody has a role to play’.

Here we chat with Professor Denise Wood about her experiences working with people with disabilities and the challenges that lay ahead for the sector.

Can you tell us about your role here at CQUni?

As Professor and Director of the Centre for Regional Advancement of Learning, Equity, Access and Participation (LEAP), my role is to promote and undertake research that contributes to improving educational and employment outcomes for students from diverse backgrounds, and informs future policy and practice.

Can you share with us your philosophy and how that aligns with the University’s mission when it comes to access and equity?

The philosophy I have advocated since my appointment at the University has been based on the principle that diversity is the standard and therefore inclusive practices must also be our standard. I am firmly committed to the principles of universal design – that is we design our services and approaches to education in ways that are inclusive of all students, while also recognising the importance of ensuring that each individual student’s needs are met. CQUniversity prides itself on the diversity of its students and strives to live up to its value to be an inclusive university, and my philosophy and work seeks to support the university in achieving this mission.

Can you share with us a bit about your background in the disability sector?

My interest and commitment to working with people with disabilities began while I was studying for my first undergraduate degree in Social Work through my part-time work as a teacher’s assistant in a special school. After graduating with my first bachelor’s degree I worked for 20 years at one of South Australia’s major service providers for young people with disabilities in various capacities including as Director of Research. During that time I completed further postgraduate qualifications including a PhD in Education with a focus on strategies for improving learning outcomes of young children with disabilities. I eventually moved on to establish a Commonwealth and State funded not-for-profit organisation providing IT skills training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. In 2000 I returned to academia at the University of South Australia where I held several positions, eventually leading up to my appointment at CQUniversity in 2014. As an academic staff member, my passion and commitment has continued to be focused on research that contributes to improved outcomes for people from diverse backgrounds, including a continuing special interest in improving educational and employment outcomes for people with disabilities.

Tell us about any recent research projects that has made an impact on the disability sector?

One of our large national funded projects, ‘Digital Enterprise’ provided young people with disabilities aged 10 to 20 years with the opportunity to undertake IT skills development through weekly face-to-face sessions conducted with our community-based partners across Australia. Analysis of data from our 185 participants gathered at the conclusion of the project and qualitative data collected from interviews and focus groups with their parents show that participants enjoyed attending sessions and learning new IT skills. The majority of participants developed plans for future schooling and employment, and nearly half of the participants stated that their plans for further education had changed in a positive direction. Perhaps the most important outcome was that all of the organisations we partnered with throughout the three-year project committed to continuing the sessions through their own funding sources once the project concluded which has ensured the program's long-term sustainability. This project also provided the evidence for another successfully funded project, Digital Arts, which has been providing VET II training for Indigenous and regional/remote young people with disabilities across South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory.

What have been your career highlights to date?

Establishing the not-for-profit organisation providing employment pathways for people with disabilities, an organisation that is still going under the auspices of another disability provider, and seeing the educational and employment outcomes realised for so many people with disabilities who benefited from the programs conducted by the organisation. One of our early graduates went on to complete an honours degree and is now undertaking a PhD.

Looking into the future, what do you hope to achieve for the disability sector?

The number of people with disabilities going on to further education is still way below parity and people with disabilities continue to face many challenges in finding employment despite their abilities. Schools and universities can go a long way towards improving inclusion and accessibility, but we are still a long way from providing universal design solutions that meet the needs of all our students with diverse abilities. Advances in technology are beginning to break down some of these barriers and my hope is that with these advances and greater community education, we will eventually be able to minimise the barriers and maximise the outcomes for people who have previously found it challenging to succeed in education and employment.

What do you see as the challenges into the future?

The roll-out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which is promoted as the most significant reform since the introduction of Medicare, has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of so many people with disabilities through better funding support and a more individualised approach to service provision. But there remains many challenges for disability providers transitioning to the new model and many people with disabilities will not meet the criteria for eligibility as NDIS participants. So one of the major challenges facing all of us going forward is how to ensure the outcomes from the NDIS translate into meaningful futures for people with disabilities, and how to ensure those not eligible for support do not fall through the gaps. It is expected that there will be many people with disabilities considering further education pathways through NDIS funding support, and it will be a priority for universities such as CQUniversity to make sure that we are ready and able to provide the supports and inclusive environment future students need to thrive in education and realise their career ambitions.