Comfort in the environment: accessibility and mental health
As I sat and listened to Colin Hambrook during our Art and Mental Health 2SER interview for Think: Health, I was reminded that we dont’ talk about access requirements enough when it comes to mental health. And this is a problem.
UTS acknowledges mental health as a significant health and wellbeing aspect for both staff and students. We have batyr on campus. We are the first university in Australia to sign the Mindful Employer Charter. We encourage students to register with UTS Accessibility Services and staff to consider JobAccess. We have regular mental health awareness training run by UTS Counselling Service, and mental health first aid courses run by Equity and Diversity Unit.
But what is the difference between health strategies and access requirements, and whose responsibility is it?
Health and Wellbeing
Mental health conditions can be at times a crisis situation, and at times a chronic and invisible condition that requires either long term or short term accessibility considerations and reasonable adjustments for study and workplaces.
In terms of a crisis, we know from Mental Health First Aid Australia that we need to A.L.G.E.E:
- Approach, assess and assist with any crisis
- Listen non-judgementally
- Give support and information
- Encourage appropriate professional help
- Encourage other supports
The Mental Health Commission NSSW talks about approaches appropriate for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In recovery approaches, the Australian Government Department of Health website recommends implementing a health management plan for a personalised approach.
However, there are also things we can collectively do in our learning and work environments that create universal access for everybody, so that everybody can have the same access and inclusion at UTS. In fact, we are governed by both law and social justice principles to do this. This means we work towards preventing triggers, offering choice and options, and really working out what environments suit us best. This means we could consider filling out a workplace adjustments form for psychiatric disability.
Where have we come from?
Similar to the disability community, people with mental health conditions were inevitably placed in asylums and institutions, and subjected to involuntary and often horrific treatments. This history of ‘doing to’ and ‘doing for’ has left a legacy which we can not afford to forget. The disability rights movement saw the closure of many of these institutions and the re-framing of disability as both environmental barriers and a cultural community advocating for ‘doing with’. This ‘doing with’ perspective is really important when you have a mental health condition, as everyone’s human right is self-determination.
The Disability Discrimination Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability include mental health conditions and psychiatric disability, and advocates for the removal of barriers, stigma, blame and punishment in all areas, including education and employment. At UTS, like anywhere, we have a number of students and staff with invisible psychiatric disability and mental health conditions. It is all of our responsibility to be accessible.
So what do we do?
Through learning how to talk about our needs and access requirements, rather than medical conditions, we not only support each other to find solutions and levels of comfort within learning, study and work, but we also acknowledge the realness of accessibility and barriers.
Access Requirements for Students
The Australian Disability Clearing House on Education and Training (ADCET website) has a great summary of what access requirements might look like.
As an academic, you could:
- clarify expectations regarding attendance
- make reading lists and handouts available early in the course
- have tailored reading lists, with some guidance to key texts.
- ask for an in-depth study of a few selected texts, rather than a broad study of many
- provide an individual orientation to laboratory equipment or computers
- use verbal rather than written feedback on assignments.
- Allow the recording of lectures
- Flexible delivery of teaching material via electronic media
- Hold patience and empathy for behavioural and cognitive differences
- Ensure the voice of the community is heard within subject matter (see Fiona Orr’s blog)
And for assessments:
- Consider the weighting of assessments – for example, setting six assignments and inform students that only the best four marks will be counted. Students who have been absent or unwell will thus have some choice about what and how many assignments they submit.
- video-record any presentations or allow one-to-one presentations
- allow extra time in examinations, a separate room free from distraction, or take-home examinations
- use short written examination instructions and sentences within examination questions
- use Short-answer questions rather than multiple-choice questions
- postpone assessments for a student experiencing a severe episode of their mental health condition
Environments that work
Incorporating some of these above strategies as standard practice for everyone will go a long way for access and inclusion in tertiary education.
In student placements and workplaces:
- Flexible working hours and the ability to work from home
- clear boundaries and availability of debriefs
- Positive affirmations and strengths –based appraisals
- Giving and receiving feedback with sensitivity
- Consideration of environmental conditions – light, sound, proximity to the door, whether the door is closed/open, large or small spaces
- Consideration of numbers of people within the work space, and whether there are attitudinal or systemic barriers in team work, preferences for one-on-one interactions, privacy vs public space
Want to know more?
UTS is hosting a number of upcoming events in support of awareness around accessibility and mental health:
- Mental Health First Aid training, bookings via NEO for internal staff
- Positive vibes: Mastering your mental wellbeing, 4 August 12pm
- Create Reciprocal Understanding in Psychiatry, 4 August 6.30pm
- Defiant Lives film screening, 15 August 5.30pm
- Preparing for Work: Accessibility, 16 August 10.30am
- Food for Thought Day 16 August 10am – 3pm
Feature image credit: Andrew Worssam.