New voice on campus for disabled students

May 4, 2021

Disabled tertiary students now have a voice on campuses around the country with the birth of the National Disabled Students’ Association (NDSA).

Spearheading the move is Victoria University of Wellington law student Alice Mander, who has drawn together a national executive of disabled student leaders from Otago Polytechnic, the University of Auckland, the University of Canterbury and the University of Otago.

Alice says only Victoria and Otago universities have networks for disabled student so far. The intention of NDSA is to connect these students in universities, polytechnics and other tertiary providers.

“One of the biggest aims of this year is to help disabled students to go back and create associations and these networks in their institutions.”

She says the important thing is to represent disabled students in any discussions and to form relationships with the disability sector and disabled people’s organisations, including People First NZ, the organisation representing people with intellectual disabilities. The intention is to make sure that people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness are included.

“We have a strong relationship with the New Zealand University Students Association. They are our partner organisation. We have a mana-enhancing agreement with NZUSA.”

Alice says it has taken a global pandemic to bring change for disabled students. “During COVID we were involved in trying to ensure that online learning was equitable for disabled students,” she says. “Before COVID the Law School would never record their lectures. Many of our lecturers were from a generation when it was easier to be a student.”

Now, because of their financial circumstances, she says students often have to choose between going to work and attending lectures.

Alice, who has muscular dystrophy and is in her fourth year of study, is now handing over as President of the Wellington Disabled Students Association to focus on the national organisation. She estimates there are around 70 people in the disabled student community at Victoria University.

She says there is a lack of data and research on disabled students and what they need to have fair access to learning. “For me it has to be the physical access.”

Alice told the University of Auckland student magazine Craccum that the role of the NDSA was to bring disability justice to the table.

She says issues facing the disabled community, such as high poverty rates, experiences of violence, poor mental and physical wellbeing and a lack of accessible housing, are not being addressed.

“This undeniably contributes to feelings of loneliness and discrimination, and our main plan to support disabled students is to ensure that their experiences and issues are heard.”

She says it is about time disabled leaders are seen on a national level like other community leaders.

The NDSA national executive met for the first time in February this year and is planning to form a representative council of the presidents and vice presidents of every disabled students’ organisation. It is planning an event in July for training student leaders and potential leaders.

Caption: National Disabled Students’ Association President Alice Mander.