Participation Assisting At The ANU: Not Just Them

I started work this year as a Participation Assistant in the Access and Inclusion Unit at ANU. The program, for those who haven’t heard of it, is designed as a transition mechanism for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder to be able to familiarise themselves with the ANU and student life in their first semester. I understood that the role might be beneficial, having blindly attempted to fumble my way through my first semester. What I didn’t understand though, was that I would benefit most.

Over 13 weeks I met two amazing individuals, individuals I now call friends. I saw how they went about their degrees and balanced life, work and study in the ways we all attempt to. This got me thinking about the ‘spoon’ concept1  and the ways in which the students I worked with balanced theirs. We would often discuss their plans, their futures, and the challenges they saw in getting there. I had never thought of the immense work they put in to ensure their spoons are well managed and preserved. They faced a great number of challenges, challenges of which they spoke openly, and were steadfastly determined to push through.

I couldn’t help but think, as this went on, about my need to balance my own spoons. I saw these students put so much effort into ensuring that when they participated, they participated fully. And I wondered, how do I participate? And more importantly, when I participate, do I participate fully?

I quickly realised I needed to balance my own spoons. I needed to consider my challenges in participating as fully as I would want. In doing so, I gained a new outlook on the way I participated on campus, and saw the barriers which affect so many students, especially those with disability. They say you’ll never know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. And whilst I’ll never walk in those shoes, walking alongside them was truly remarkable.

That said, I am concerned that the paths these shoes tread remain poorly lit. We struggle to see the issues which affect students with disability. There is a lack of awareness, not only in our university, but our community, of the challenges which affect students with disability. We especially miss those areas we take for granted, like getting to know the campus, joining a club, or balancing our time. I’m not afraid to say that was me six months ago; I hadn’t thought about these things as I should have. And I wonder now, without this experience, how easily I would have remained in the same bubble.

There is a lot to be done by all of us as a community. If we are to accommodate these challenges, we must be aware of them. So take up the challenge of becoming aware. Consider jumping into the PA program, or look to the many volunteering options on our campus, and see if it assists you in participating in the discourse on disability.

1The ‘spoon’ concept was developed by Christine Miserandino as a measure of how much energy students with disability must expend to complete everyday activities as a way of providing a better understanding of everyday challenges people with disability may face. For more information, see

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