Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Diversity Values Must Be Backed By Actions

By Catherine Lockley

A disabled student’s story reveals the huge systemic barriers faced by minority groups seeking a science education.

Research tells us that diversity fosters better science. Most Australian universities have a list of policies available to all staff and students promoting diversity, and many develop initiatives to specifically target and enrol these students.

On paper, diversity is encouraged and supported by both government and institutional policy and infrastructure, but how do these initiatives translate into experience for the students?

Not well, according to a 2017 survey of underrepresented minority students published in Science (https://bit.ly/2Ppyxa6), which found that initiatives and policy don’t translate effectively into student experience. As a result, underrepresented minority groups face huge systemic barriers that make their journey resemble a game of Fortnite played in Battle Royale mode.

While Universities Australia has reported a 94% increase in enrolments by students with a disability over the past decade (https://bit.ly/2xyvSn0), the Australian Human Rights Commission has stated definitively that “there are not enough services available to students with a disability to match the requirements” (https://bit.ly/2yATOnr).

Why do diversity initiatives fail to reach the students they were designed to recruit and assist? For starters, the disconnect is not often academic in nature. The less tangible elements of student experience – those not documented in university subject experience surveys, for example – are the ones that hinder women and other minorities most in their academic journeys.

Let’s look at “diversity”. This term merely describes differences within a group. “Inclusion” is about how those members are treated and how they feel. Emphasising diversity without institutional cultural inclusion only results in an increase in the number of diverse scientists. It does not foster equity within the scientific community.

Reams of policy documents address both initiatives and codes of practice for universities. The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 says that active measures must be taken to identify and remove barriers to learning that are reasonable and that do not impose unjustifiable hardship on the organisation. The Students with Disabilities: Code of Practice for Australian Tertiary Institutions (https://bit.ly/2DkApib) insists that “they will be treated with dignity and respect” and that staff are “able to respond appropriately to the requirements of students with disabilities and call on timely specialist advice as required”.

But here’s how this translates in reality. A young woman with congenital spinal muscular atrophy is studying her undergraduate science degree at an Australian regional university. Due to her condition, and reliance on her wheelchair, she chooses to study the majority of the program via distance education. However the Australian Qualifications Framework has certain requirements for laboratory hours and face-to-face teaching via compulsory residential school sessions.

This woman does not face academic challenges. In fact, she is a multiple recipient of Dean’s List academic recognition.

Her challenges are practical. The ageing laboratory facilities were not designed for wheelchair accessibility. This leaves her stuck out the front, unable to participate in experiments. Despite booking her accommodation at 9.01 am on the day reservations became available, she arrives to discover that the only suitably accessible room in the university residences has been allocated to someone else… an ambulatory person at that.

She is now in a room that doesn’t fit her wheelchair hoist, and in which she cannot shower for the 4 days of laboratory time. She has little option for recourse. Residential schools often run over weekends, and there is no one around to fulfil the codes of practice. In these circumstances, she is expected to both fully participate in class activities and complete a stressful mid-session examination – without the basic human dignity of being able to shower or toilet safely.

This university talks the talk. It values diversity. It is about “creating a fair and inclusive environment in which students and staff from all backgrounds can flourish”.

Staff have contacted the student and have determined to rectify their residential accessibility allocation policy – at some point. Ask the student how “flourished” she feels right now! What are the chances that she’ll be inclined to subject herself to more of the same at a postgraduate level?

The absence of practical inclusion strategies – more than a singular accessible room, for example – means that in this case the best thinker has very little chance of rising to the top, or even hoping to compete in the “meritocracy” of science. She is playing the same game as her cohort, but in Battle Royale mode.

Until diversity initiatives come hand-in-hand with practical inclusion strategies, “valuing diversity” means nothing more than politically correct point-scoring.


Catherine Lockley is a postgraduate student in Science Communication at The Australian National University.