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Barriers to study for the disabled

By Peter Gibilisco - posted Tuesday, 6 February 2007


The digital revolution may equip some people with disabilities with the information technology that has the potential, when combined with ongoing political and social struggle, to free our society from the reality of disability.

But, in the digital age “disability” is also socially constructed through such technology, which in itself can prevent adequate solutions to real social problems for disabled people. Many people with disabilities cannot afford to become part of this solution. Besides other barriers, the equipment costs are simply beyond the means of those who survive on the disabled pension. As Goggin and Newell (2003) put it:

It is not so much the latest add-on, the fastest computer, or even the more expansive application or universal design that will confer the greatest benefit for people with disabilities. Rather, we need to recognise that in whatever we do we have the opportunity to disable or enable. We recommend that it is time for society to decide that it wishes to reconnect with people with disabilities in the digital future that will be our emerging society. This is not so much a technological question, as a political one.

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The digital revolution can create additional barriers for people with disabilities: for example, by creating a digital divide - a widening of the socioeconomic gap - between people with and those without disabilities, rather than helping to close these gaps.

These gaps are highlighted when the disposable income available through the disability pension is compared with the average disposable income of the able bodied. The digital revolution may be at the forefront of a divide between the educational and interrelated disparities of people with disabilities and most of society’s so-called "normal" members.

People with disabilities need a collective and empathetic approach so as not to add to the social exclusion and impoverishment they already feel compared to mainstream society. They need to be regarded as more than just the stereotype of people with lesser abilities. They need collective assurances that using technology to develop new skills is not an elusive dream.

I am a severely physically disabled person, with a PhD from the University of Melbourne, who has been through this experience. I believed the idea of developing self-esteem through the gaining of a PhD sounded attractive. But many ideas are often attractive in theory but destructive in practice. An example of this is the price of computers: they are not cheap to the average disabled pensioner. Some of the costs involved are:

  • a working computer with required software;
  • installation - having a motor function type of disability stops me from installing my own computer;
  • connection to the Internet and the constant monthly bills; and
  • after sales service and constant purchase of the required computer programs and accessories, printing paper and ink.

This takes a large sum of cash from a meager entitlement like the disability pension, which is fixed at about $510 a fortnight, leaving one with little, if any, disposable income for any further computer hardware and software, and upkeep.

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Again, this shows the need for continual intervention from government to realise that concepts such as merit are not neutral, but are socially constructed. In this example, my capacity to participate in higher education on the basis of merit is severely constrained by factors like, for example, the inadequate provision of collective entitlements for people with disabilities i.e. limited finances.

Disabled people are often in situations where the social structures around them are inadequate: the dominant political agenda reinforces this with the theory that fewer entitlements creates more empowerment. So by reforming social policy with fewer entitlements, which in turn increases the government’s budget surplus, government can then justifiably reduce taxes.

This is further illustrated by the government’s attack on the Pensioner Education Supplement.

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About the Author

Peter Gibilisco was diagnosed with the progressive neurological condition called Friedreich's Ataxia, at age 14. The disability has made his life painful and challenging. He rocks the boat substantially in the formation of needed attributes to succeed in life. For example, he successfully completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne, this was achieved late into the disability's progression. However, he still performs research with the university, as an honorary fellow. Please read about his new book The Politics of Disability.

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