Australian Tertiary Education Network on Disability

Pathways15: Creating places of belonging for those living with disability: Going beyond diversity and inclusion in post-secondary education

Dr Sheelagh Daniels-Mayes, University of Sydney

I first entered higher education as a student seven years prior to the enactment of the Disability Discrimination Act of 1992. When I graduated in 1989, it took over one hundred job interviews before I was finally successful. Since this time, the concepts of ‘cultural competence’, ‘cultural responsive’, ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ have become familiar terms in post-secondary education and beyond. They are evident in, for example, strategic plans, Policies, standards, and graduate qualities for university students. But what do such concepts mean in practice and are they working? In this presentation I will draw upon my experience of being Australia’s only known Aboriginal female academic living with vision impairment and working with a guide dog. Achieving and maintaining this position requires persistency, innovativeness, and collaboration with allies, those savvy people who ‘get it’. I will share with you why I argue that goals of diversity and inclusion are not enough. That instead we need to be creating places of belonging for those who have been marginalised and understood as being in deficit, a problem to be fixed and not understood as an asset for success.


I am a Kamilaroi woman who lost her eyesight to congenital glaucoma as a child following measles. In January 2016 I moved back to Sydney from Adelaide after a decade's absence to take up a lecturing and research position in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. I teach and research in the spaces of Aboriginal and inclusive education, Indigenous studies and Indigenous methodologies. Living with vision impairment means that I have been a lifetime advocate and activist for accessibility and inclusion within the built environment, in online digital platforms, and in the minds of people who tend to under-estimate the abilities of those living with disability. I have studied in the fields of education, sociology, criminology and psychology. I borrow and bend the theoretical frameworks of cultural responsiveness, Critical Race Theory and , and Critical Access/Disability Studies. I am passionate about higher education having a unique responsibility to work towards equity and social justice.

My experience includes working with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Adelaide City Council Access and Inclusion Panel, and the SA Minister’s Disability Advisory Committee. I facilitated the writing of Vision Australia’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP seeking to make the organization more culturally savvy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are blind or have low vision. Prior to returning to university to study education, I worked as a Senior Project Officer with the NSW Department of Corrective Services developing programs to lower the re-offending rates of Aboriginal peoples across the state. My work history is diverse, having been a counsellor with organisations like the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON), the Salvation Army and Oasis Youth Support Network.