Vol 12, Issue 3
Melbourne Law School is ranked as the best law school in the Asia Pacific, and markets itself as a vibrant leader and innovator in legal scholarship. Current and prospective students are told that a Juris Doctor degree will be recognised as exceptional both in Australia and overseas, and as such be the foundation for a successful career. On social media, MLS promotes itself via campaigns such as #HumansOfMelbourneLawSchool, which attempt to highlight the diversity of the students and staff. However, it remains that MLS is not equally accessible to all. This is not due to the nature of admissions or the degree itself, but instead a failure on behalf of MLS to adequately accommodate students with disabilities.
Disability is generally understood in two ways in modern academic discourse. The medical model tells us that a person’s disability is created by his or her impairment or capacity. For example, under the medical model, we might say a person is a paraplegic and is therefore disabled. This is the prominent understanding of disability in mainstream, able bodied culture. On the other hand, there is the social model of disability. This tells us that disability is not created by a person’s impairment or capacity, but by society not making accommodations for that person. Under the social model, my previous example of the paraplegic would not be disabled because he or she can’t walk, but because society is organised in a way that is not accessible for people in wheelchairs. The social model of disability distinguishes between a person’s impairment, i.e. the medical condition, and the disability, i.e. the disadvantages faced by that person because of his or her medical condition. This is an important distinction because under the medical model, not much can be done about disability. However, under the social model, society can be re-organised in a way to accommodate those who are currently excluded.
The law library has three floors, and yet only one is accessible by lift. To get to levels four or five, a person must get off the lift at level three and climb the stairs. Frustratingly, the Moot Court and kitchen area of level five can be accessed via the lift, but not the library. The lift to levels four and five is fully functional -- indeed, it goes all the way up to level nine -- yet for reasons unknown it is blocked off from accessing levels four and five. This means that two levels of the library are not accessible for students who use wheelchairs or have other issues with mobility. In writing this, I have asked myself if perhaps there is lift access to these floors for wheelchair users. I do not use a wheelchair or other mobility aides, so if there is some kind of special access, I wouldn’t necessarily be aware of it. However, accessibility for people without disabilities does not need to be asked for -- it is given. Accessibility for people with a disability should be held to the same standard. If a person has to request access, a venue is not truly accessible. If someone needs assistance to access the venue, then the venue is not accessible. If we accept this, levels four and five of the law library are not accessible. There is also the issue of tiered flooring and immobile desks in many classrooms at MLS. It is evident that access for wheelchair users was not considered during the construction of these rooms. Making spaces accessible needs to be an active process, not an afterthought.
There is also the issue of distressing subject matter, such as rape, being covered in class with no prior warning for students. I have heard that in previous years, some subjects did not warn students before discussing cases involving rape. This lack of warning meant that some students were left extremely distressed and unable to participate in, or in some cases even attend, the class. In 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that 17% of women and 4% of men had experienced sexual assault since the age of 15. A University of Queensland study indicates that 20.6% of women and 10.5% of men report experiencing sexual assault during childhood. Given these figures, it is not unreasonable to assume that there are students at MLS who have experienced sexual assault. I don’t want to reduce this to an argument about trigger warnings -- I think the topic has been done to death and attracts fools from both sides. However, I do think that we should consider both the number of people who have experienced sexual assault, and the gravity and long term effects of sexual assault in asking whether or not to warn students about such cases. This is also not about shutting down discussions of sexual assault. Given the nature of the degree, it is very important to be educated about the matter. By warning students before having these discussions, it allows the topic to be taught and discussed, whilst also allowing students with a history of trauma to make appropriate decisions for themselves with regards to their learning. With these considerations in mind, I believe it is in the interests of students to make a warning before the topic is discussed. Some may say that if a student requires a warning, he or she should ask the lecturer for one. This isn’t an appropriate solution -- the onus should not fall on students to disclose their personal history of sexual assault. Instead, MLS and its staff should be taking an active role to make sure that classes are accessible for all students. Students should not have to be reminded of past trauma in order to gain a legal education.
Warning students of such content is not hard. An excellent example of a warning was last semester’s Administrative Law class, which sent out an email to students warning that an upcoming case discussed sexual assault and incest. Students were told that the Administrative Law teaching team were fully supportive of a decision to not come to class, or to leave during the discussion of that particular case. Students were also told which lines of the judgements contained explicit detail. I commend the Administrative Law teaching team for their excellent handling of the case.
MLS needs to be accessible to all students, not just those who are able bodied and without a history of trauma and sexual assault. Shiny Instagram campaigns highlighting the diversity of MLS are meaningless if students can’t access libraries or classes. Disability is a diversity in the human experience, but it need not something that should exclude a person from attaining their full potential.
Ruby Bell is a second-year JD student
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