ANU’s Implementation of its Disability Action Plan Lagging Significantly with an Entire Rewrite Proposed

Art by Jasmin Small

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws have revealed that the ANU is lagging behind on the implementation of its own Disability Action Plan (DAP). The review identifies that a majority of actions are either behind schedule or have not begun at all, in what student representatives argue shows the University’s disregard for disabled students.

The Mid-Plan Review Report was presented to the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) Governance Committee in April this year. 

The ANU’s DAP contains 68 action items and was initially proposed to exist from 2020 to 2024. However, of these action items: 

  • 28% are complete (green)
  • 41% are progressing but behind schedule (amber)
  • 31% have not started, or have stopped (red)

The authors identify five key barriers the DAP has faced, while also acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic impeded implementation. Those barriers are: resourcing, governance, communication, policy and procedure, and the development and structure of the plan itself. 

The plan begins by suggesting that “the high proportion of amber and red action items is in part due to re-prioritisation and resourcing demands posed by COVID-19.” However, it goes on to discuss key structural issues that reflect more on University planning than the pandemic. This includes the fact that the DAP was not included in budget plans, workforce planning or in other appropriate University plans and strategies, or that some areas of the University were assigned actions without being aware of it.

Additionally, the University finalised and released the DAP in June 2020, by which point many states had already experienced lockdowns, and a majority of Australia had internal border restrictions. Just a year later, the University would tell students living on campus that another series of lockdowns was “foreseeable” and hence they would still have to pay rent even if they legally could not enter the ACT. There is the possibility, therefore, that the University could have reasonably foreseen the impact of COVID-19 on DAP actions.

Overall, the report points to systemic issues in the implementation of the DAP. When the DAP was initially created, the plan was that the responsible areas of the University would identify the staffing and budget required. However, “…in most cases the DAP was not incorporated…” into financial planning or forward planning. This accounts for delays in at least ten actions. 

Despite the University’s public commitment to the Action Plan, it did not integrate it into its own strategic planning and performance framework. This means that the University did not include its own DAP into its University-wide planning systems, a step which is often considered key to implementing action plans. Additionally, the Disability Action and Inclusion Working Group (DAIWG) became a “catch-all” group “for any and all accessibility issues” which distracted it from implementing the DAP. This also happened with Access and Inclusion, which the report notes has tasks under the DAP that it is ill-suited to achieve. 

Because of COVID-19, there was no launch of the DAP, and the review argues staff were distracted by more pressing issues. Yet, the report goes on to note that poor communication of senior management’s commitment to the DAP may have meant other staff have not prioritised it. 

Yet the report also points to issues within the DAP. Some of the outcomes, which measure whether an action has been met, do not accurately reflect the action. This has led to the action being marked as complete when “…it is not possible to say that the action has been totally realised.”

ANUSA’s Disabilities Co-officers, Maddi McCarthy (she/her) and Mira Robson (she/her) represent the ANU Disabilities Students’ Association on the DAIWG. They told Woroni that they always had the opinion that there was not much concrete work achieved on the DAP. They continue to receive complaints from students directly related to some of the action items. 

They added that the DAIWG appears to be taking the mid-plan review report seriously and that “they might have been surprised or disappointed with the progress so far.”

Nonetheless, the Co-officers did point out areas that they found particularly important, and were especially disappointed to see little action on. This included limited disability awareness training for staff, which they contrasted to the relative progress on staff training around other marginalised groups. They pointed out that the University created the DAP with minimal student consultation, with no surveys sent out and only the Officers being in a position to provide feedback. The report highlights the lack of accountability and auditing measures, and McCarthy and Robson echo this, as it “means ANU is not held accountable for making their events accessible to all students.”

A key area of the DAP, and also an area which has seen little to no movement, is ANU’s built environment. The Co-officers pointed out “that even the recent builds (e.g. Kambri, Yukeembruk) are not accessible, through things like non-accessible doors and lack of wide paths.” Meanwhile, a number of older buildings still require renovations, the representatives argued. 

Asked about the lack of resourcing explained in the report, the Co-officers described it as a slap in the face, and that it shows “a disregard for disabled students on campus.” They explained that “If the University truly cared about upholding their promises…they would not forget about resourcing the DAP.”

Across the DAP, there are two key areas where little progress has been made: in inviting feedback and consultation, and in auditing the University’s physical environment. 

The DAP commits the ANU to an annual survey of students and staff on the University’s accessibility measures, as well as regularly inviting disabled students to provide feedback to the University, and providing a source of feedback on accessibility issues. None of these reporting avenues have started, compounding the issue of limited student feedback that the Co-Officers highlighted.

Physical accessibility is a key aspect of the DAP. Despite this, no audits of ANU buildings or residences have yet occurred, causing spill-on effects as there is no prioritisation of which buildings require renovation. The University has not yet audited future building projects to ensure they meet accessibility standards. 

An ANU spokesperson told Woroni that the University regrets the impact of the DAP’s slow implementation on students and staff. The ANU attributed the lack of integration of the DAP into the University’s Strategic Planning Framework as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resourcing required to continue operations during the pandemic. 

Ultimately, the report argues “the DAP could benefit from a re-write at this stage of its implementation with two years still remaining.” It acknowledges that this would delay the implementation of some items, but that a revised DAP may improve outcomes.

The University claims it will ensure “the relevant actions are reassigned, rewritten, or otherwise updated to be more actionable. The IDEA Governance Committee has committed to this and is in the process of forming a DAP Reinvigoration Taskforce to action this work.” This taskforce will conclude its work by the end of 2023.

The University plans to form a second taskforce, responsible for developing the next DAP, in early 2024. The creation of two task forces, within such close proximity, may create a greater workload for the already overworked student disability advocates at the University. The ability of the University to balance incorporating the lived experience of students, without creating burnout from uncompensated consultation work, remains to be seen. The current DAP aims at wider student and staff consultation, which may be achieved next time round.

The University spokesperson thanked “…students for their continuing work and advocacy in this space” and reiterated its commitment to accessibility and inclusion for all. Students will see what this commitment looks like in practice this year, especially as the ANU “…is committed to being transparent” about the slow progress.

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