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Disability no barrier to a degree

by Rachel Broadley

Julie Sutherland uses specialised technology for her study.UniSA student Julie Sutherland (pictured), was born blind, but she hasn’t let that get in the way of pursuing her ambition to study a Bachelor of Tourism and Event Management, and now she’s just weeks away from her graduation.

Julie, 29, was born blind and has right-sided hemiplegia (total paralysis of the arm, leg, and trunk on the same side of the body) after being born 16 weeks prematurely.

She was flown by the Royal Flying Doctors from Millicent to Adelaide shortly after her birth, and with a body temperature of just 31 degrees and weighing only 500 grams, was the smallest, coldest baby in South Australia to survive such a transfer from a regional area to a major city hospital.

Not being able to see means Julie has faced greater obstacles than most to fulfil her desire to study for a Bachelor of Tourism and Event Management.

Julie explains that she boarded at the School for the Blind to learn how to read and write braille and to use computers with speech output, which enabled her to undertake university studies.

“Technology has played a large role in helping me to learn,” she says.

“The technology that I have on my computer converts the text on the screen into speech. I input information using the keyboard, so I had to learn how to touch-type. Also, the University, through the Learning and Teaching Unit, purchased a braille note-taking device called a BrailleNote. It has a braille keyboard and a screen on the front which has pins underneath it which produce braille each time the keys are pressed.

“During lectures and tutorials I also had the support of note-takers who would write down what was being discussed, because quite often the lecturers would be pointing at PowerPoint slides which, if I didn’t know what was on them, was very handy.

“They could email them to me and I could put them on to my braille note-taking device and read them that way.

“The process is time-consuming, but when you compare it to other blind students who studied before me, it’s actually a lot easier because I can go home that night with the notes emailed to me, put them on to my braille machine and have instant braille access at my fingertips, whereas in the past people could be waiting for up to a year to get a book transcribed into braille.

“I’m just so lucky to have been born in this era of digital technology. But it means that, even though there is all of this digital technology, I can still only access three to five per cent of all material that’s ever published.”

Julie won a Charles Bright scholarship last year, which assists people with disabilities undertaking tertiary study to cover the cost of either buying adaptive technology or paying various fees. She also volunteers as a disability advocate for Blind Citizens Australia, where she lobbies government to ensure blind people have access to the same facilities and services as sighted people.

She says she is now considering a Master’s in Arts and Cultural Management which would allow her to combine her interest in tourism and events with accessibility issues.

“My experience together with my study gives me good insight into the issues around accessible tourism,” Julie says.

“My parents owned a hotel in Beachport in the South East, and we had guests from time-to-time with varying levels of disability. I saw that not a lot was being done to assist and make sure that they had an accessible holiday.

“If universities don’t provide courses about accessible tourism, the broader tourism industry will remain ignorant, though things are getting better. The business case for accessible tourism is now being recognised.”

Program Director at the School of Management, Jenny Davies, says she has been impressed by Julie’s approach to her studies.

“Julie has a tenacity and preparedness to take up challenges and work through them,” says Davies.

“She’s always been willing to initiate contact and is able to articulate her needs and help work out how we can address them.

“Julie’s disability has challenged my ideas regarding learning and teaching in a very positive way. I am much more tuned into the issues faced by people who have special needs.”

Julie’s advice for other people with disabilities who are considering studying is to approach the UniSA Learning and Teaching Unit for support.

“I see quite a lot of people with disabilities, particularly the hidden ones like dyslexia, who feel that they should not go to see the Learning and Teaching people,” Julie says.

“I strongly encourage people to do that and to do it early, because the academic staff are more than happy to accommodate your needs, as long as they have information in writing from the disabilities service about what your problems are.”

For more information about the Teaching and Learning Unit, please visit the website.