University students with disabilities routinely face discrimination while on work placement, leading to some dropping out or switching career pathways, according to an Australian-first research study.

The Deakin University study led by Dr Mollie Dollinger, uncovered intentional prejudice directed at students with disabilities or mental health conditions.  

It found some students’ disabilities were not believed or blatantly disregarded by workplace supervisors, while others were made to feel they were a burden, or faced subconscious or unintentional bias, by their work placement colleagues.  

“We were told about one work placement manager who was informed a student experienced chronic fatigue but who chose not to take it seriously. Another manager disclosed a student’s disability to staff at a team meeting without first gaining that student’s consent,” Dollinger said.  

“We also learned of a scenario where a student with limited mobility arrived for their first day of placement to find the building had no lift. Often these examples of discrimination come from a lack of awareness or poor understanding of disability, but others stemmed from bias and prejudice.”  

It was estimated as many as 20 per cent of young people experience mental health conditions and/or neurodiversity, but this is not well understood by the broader Australian public.

Generational and cultural differences with workplace supervisors often compounded the issue, with students’ health questioned or even interrogated, Dollinger said.

The study surveyed 132 university students who identified as having a disability. It also hosted a series of follow-up focus groups with 26 students to discuss their unique experiences while on university placement.  It revealed that 44 per cent of students would not disclose or fully disclose details of their disability to work placement supervisors out of fear of being discriminated against.  Education and nursing sectors were the worst in terms of being inflexible work environments.

The project findings were published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management and most recently in the journal of Disability & Society.