What Sexual Assault Findings Mean for Disabled Students

Content Warning: This article addresses sexual assault and harassment perpetrated against people with a disability, and gender-diverse people.

The results of Universities Australia’s National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) released this past March highlighted some worrying trends in the culture of Australian higher education. Amid the consistently high rates of sexual harassment and assault was the revelation that disabled students are the most likely people to be assaulted during their time at university, followed closely by the gender diverse.

But this finding isn’t surprising to QUT Student Guild Abilities Officer, Anne Kelley, who points out that one of the greatest barriers to access for disabled students is finding correct information online about any aspect of the university system.

‘There are so many inconsistent UI’s (user interfaces), dead ends, wrong phone numbers and maps, and outdated information, that nothing feels like it can be relied upon,’ Kelley said.

‘Even able-bodied students can struggle with it. For disabled students, on top of the daily administration of their own conditions, and varying energy levels, it can leave one prepared to give up.

‘This goes some way in explaining why there is such severely low complaint reporting numbers amongst victims of harassment and assault. People are unsure what help is available to them, where to get it, and what the processes are like. While we have an amazing support network with the Discrimination Unit, and the Guild student services, quite often people have no idea that these services even exist. Additionally, when I have referred some students to them, they are dubious about what can be done, are worried they will receive retaliation for reporting, and are unfortunately unaware that these services are confidential and trauma sensitive.’

To Kelley, the statistics are clear, and show that disabled students face greater barriers of reporting than other students.

‘54 percent of disabled students had little to no idea of what the reporting process even was … [and] also more likely to witness another student being assaulted, and more likely to have assaults disclosed to them,’ Kelley said.

‘We face greater risks of harassment and assault when at home, in care, or even at university.

‘Considering that disabled students are at the highest risk of assault, I am not particularly impressed at the one NSSS recommendation to “improve inclusivity” to tackle this issue. And what is the point of raising awareness of the reporting processes, as they suggest, that many disabled students find hard to navigate?’

For students turning to established institutions for guidance, the silence has been heartbreaking.

‘The QUT response to the recommendations do not even include disabled students as a key recommendation, despite being at some of the greatest risk,’ Kelley said.

‘Even on the [QUT Student] Guild website, there is no clear direct link or explanation to any help that can be offered by the Guild or QUT. It is all under jargon and information students, especially those who are disabled, may not understand, behind many layers of pages with differing and overlapping information.’

‘If they can barely even consider trying to do more to stop assaults against disabled students, maybe they can at least make it marginally easier for them to report them.’

More to come.

Tom Loudon
Tom Loudon

Tom (he/him) is a Meanjin/Brisbane based writer and the Editor in Chief at Glass Media. He has a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts (Creative Writing) and is currently studying Communications (Journalism) at QUT.

Articles: 75

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