What’s ‘normal’ anyway? tackling the stigma of mental and learning disabilities

The stigma that surrounds learning and mental disabilities is still the reason why many students do not ask for help or even pursue an education. Much of this is related to the way we talk about the issues. UTSInsearch Program Manager, Communication, Dr Janet Gibson has been working on projects and initiatives that change the culture and learning experience.

‘I hate the word “normal”. What does that even mean? Who decides what’s normal? These subjective norms dominate our culture, especially in education,’ she explains.

Nearly all higher education providers in Australia have systems in place aimed at supporting students with a disability. However, Dr Gibson argues that these policies are still based on a deficiency model.

‘The naming of these policies alone creates a barrier. We call them “special needs”, or even “disability” policies, and by doing so we inherently polarise “us, the normal people” and “you, the special people”.

‘It creates shame. Who would willingly put up their hand and make an official declaration that they are not ‘normal’? Or that they need help in keeping up with “normal” people? It is not inclusive at all,’ Dr Gibson points out.

Since 2017, Dr Gibson has been actively leading projects that change the policies at her institution and put accessible learning into practice in classrooms.

‘Students need to be given the space and the tools to learn effectively. Apart from the course content, they need to learn how to manage and succeed despite their individual challenges.

‘Our education system is modelled after a very old Western patriarchal system with a heavy emphasis on written assessments. Assessment design in general is very problematic – sometimes assessments are simply designed in a way that is convenient for the teacher, not because they are a genuine learning exercise.

‘I am trying to change this around so that students can come to university and discover their talents and learn in a way that makes sense for them rather than trying to fit into this rigid, outdated way of teaching,’ she argues.

Dr Gibson is currently mapping out the equipment, technology, adjustments to learning material and teacher training needed to ensure all students receive a supported and personalised learning experience.

Although the road ahead is still long and cultural change is hard to achieve, Dr Gibson’s steadfast in her goals.

‘My brother was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in the late  1970s when we knew very little about it and mostly, people just thought it meant “crazy” or “dangerous”. Although he was a brilliant and very intelligent man, due to the lack of awareness all this remained hidden behind the word “Schizophrenia”.

‘At the very least, nowadays we have more information, more research and more open discussions about this. It is getting better, but we still need to do a lot more from here,’ explains Dr Gibson.

The Problem

Learning and mental disabilities and other such ‘invisible’ issues among students often fall under the radar because people are ashamed to admit they need help.

The Response

UTSInsearch Program Manager, Communication, Dr Janet Gibson is advocating for those students and is using her voice to create a more inclusive and truly accessible education environment.

What helped accomplish this?

As a first step in changing the conversation, Dr Gibson is revamping the way in which education providers talk about and handle learning and mental disabilities at the institutional level.

What has changed as a result?

With a new policy in place, innovative initiatives are now being rolled out at UTS Insearch to personalise learning and inspire students to discover their talents rather than being penalised for their weaknesses.
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