The COVID-stricken 2020 and 2021 HSC years were turbulent for all students, but a HSC system that does not cater for students with mild physical disabilities like me made it all the more difficult.
I have mild Ataxic Cerebral Palsy (from a brain tumour), so my writing speed is much slower than other people's. But because my disability is not very obvious, I did not always get the support I needed at school. At the start of my high school journey, I was told that I had to choose between receiving learning support and being in the selective stream. There was an assumption that people with disabilities cannot achieve academically. The system seemed to be geared towards people with intellectual, rather than physical disabilities.
After competing at a high level in athletics, including representing Australia in the 200 metres at Paralympic level, I feel as though sport is light years ahead of school in recognising that people with disability can move beyond just participating to being high achievers.
Eventually, with my parents' help, I was able to be in the selective stream at my school and receive support - but I had to endlessly advocate to get the support I needed.
For my first HSC exams, I was not approved extra writing time on the basis that I was granted a laptop - even though my typing speed is slower than the average student's writing speed, and worsens over time. Not to mention that parts of various exam papers could not be done on the laptop anyway. This was despite submitting multiple health professional and teacher reports, and appealing the decision twice.
The invigilators supervising me did not know how my provisions were supposed to be implemented. In one case, my invigilator told me to start the ExamWriter software on the laptop at the beginning of the five minutes of reading time. The software is designed to run for exactly three hours - the duration of the exam - which meant it timed out before the exam was finished.
I benefited from being able undertake the HSC over two years via the HSC "Pathways" program. By the second year, after another round of reports and appeals, I thought I had experienced all the things that could go wrong with my special provisions. But there was more.
For three exams I was given the wrong start time on my personal exam timetable, which was distressing to sort out. On top of my ataxic tremors, this resulted in me deleting a slab of text during the English Paper 2. I was overwhelmed and couldn't find an undo button at first glance, so immediately took one of the rest breaks I was allocated. Due to my invigilator being unfamiliar with the ExamWriter software, valuable time was lost finding the undo key, and the text was never recovered because the computer reset itself after my break. Because of this, I was granted five extra minutes to complete the exam, but wasn't told this until after the exam was finished.
For my final exam, I secured extra writing time, only to find out it was of unknown duration due to it being calculated on the actual writing time I took. Thus, the extra time was not allocated until I had finished writing, and the infamous ExamWriter software timed out at the end of the normal exam time, so it was impossible to use.
All of these issues meant I had to make misadventure claims for each of my exams, which were declined.
A major fault of the endless paperwork associated with special-provisions applications is that the decision-maker does not actually see you in person to assess the level of disability.
I am relieved I have now finished school, but I feel for other students in my situation. I wish education authorities would change their systems to be more accommodating for people with physical disabilities, who need special provisions yet find it hard to secure them. I had the benefit of tertiary-educated parents who could assist me; I can only imagine what it's like to be less well off and unable to sift through this endless bureaucracy.
I'm sure we can all agree that it's wonderful to see sportspeople like new Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott perform at the highest level in the Australian Open. I hope we can remove the barriers to students with disability performing at the highest level at school.
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