Empowering students with disabilities: Unhas seeks to unleash potential and ensure inclusivity

Row of about 10 people standing, one person seated in wheelchair, one man kneeling next to him

A student called Lala is part of the reason why Universitas Hasanuddin in Indonesia is working to create a more inclusive environment.


Blind since elementary school, Lala, whose full name is Nabila May Sweetha, overcame initial rejection to attend a mainstream high school where she combined study with efforts to end discrimination and ableism (discrimination in favour of able-bodied people).

She gained a place at the university, known as Unhas, in 2020 and continues to combine learning and activism.

The efforts of students and activists such as Lala have brought about change. The university is making an ‘inclusive campus’ a priority and in May this year rector Professor Jamaluddin Jompa formally established the Disability Center (Pusat Disabilitas).

The Disability Center aims to improve the competency of lecturers and teaching staff when working with students with disability, as well as provide counselling services and support.

It also aims to simplify the admission process and it is in this area that it is already making a difference according to Dr Ishak Salim who leads the centre.

Dr Salim said applications from prospective disabled students could now be considered at the discretion of the university’s rector, whereas previously, there was no specialised admission route.

“This new pathway streamlines certain requirements that might be impractical or challenging for people with disabilities. For instance, the age limit for graduation used to be within three years of high school completion, but for disabled individuals, this limit can be extended,” he said.

“This adjustment is made because many disabled individuals, even years after graduating, still face difficulties in accessing higher education.”

Interview-based evaluations without the burden of written tests are another innovation, as well as minimising administrative demands more generally.

Since the centre’s inception, five prospective disabled students underwent selection, with four being accepted.

The centre will also develop collaborative research efforts supported by projects from the Australia-Indonesia Centre and its PAIR research program.

Talking to the Australia-Indonesia Centre in Melbourne, Professor Jamaluddin Jompa indicated the university was looking to make a difference to the lives of people with disability through research.

“This year has been marked as a new era of really making a program for addressing disability,” he said.

“I think in the past, we didn’t ignore disability but maybe we didn’t realise its importance for research.”

Professor Jompa said while there was an awareness of the need to be inclusive, efforts had to go beyond goodwill.

“In the past I think everybody realised that we need to be inclusive, but that was only in spirit, there was not much in the way of detail,” he said.

“I think we are among the few universities in Indonesia who are really providing clear recruitment, services and planning to create an inclusive campus in the next five years or so.”

The Australia-Indonesia Centre has been active in supporting relevant research through its PAIR program, notably a current project into improving accessibility for women and people with disabilities at Universitas Hasanuddin.

Late last year, lead researchers from the AIC PAIR program on improving health outcomes outlined their findings to Indonesia’s Ministry of Health and the National Committee on Disability.

Findings were delivered to policymakers and stakeholders using a focused policy briefing – one of seven such documents created by the AIC — as part of a series of meetings that took place in early December.

The health and wellbeing team spoke with policymakers with the intent of charting a path forward.

A previous round of research examined the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of people with disability.

Feature image by the Australia-Indonesia Centre.

Picture of David Sexton

Digital Communications Coordinator,
the Australia-Indonesia Centre