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Vale, Donna-Rose McKay

Monday 16 December 2013 8:06am

A 2011 photo of the Disability Information & Support team: (back row from left) Emma Holt, Eileen O’Regan, Helen Ingrams. (Front row from left) Jenny Week, Donna-Rose McKay, Kim Daufratshofer. Photo: Graham Warman.

Donna-Rose McKay, Head of the University’s Disability Information & Support Service, last week passed away after a short illness. Donna-Rose started working at the University in 1992 and was a much loved and highly respected member of staff. The following is a tribute from Student Services Director David Richardson that he read at her funeral last week. Also included below are Otago Bulletin and Otago Magazine articles from last year, when the University celebrated the 20 years of dedicated work that Donna-Rose and her Disability Information & Support Service had carried out at the University. In these stories Donna-Rose reflected on her role and the importance of the services provided by her and her team.

Tribute to Donna-Rose

David Richardson, Director of the Student Services Division, read this tribute to Donna-Rose at her funeral at First Church last Thursday (12 December).

My name is David Richardson and I am the Director of the Student Services Division at the University. The Disability Information & Support team are a unit within the Division, with Donna-Rose as the Head of Service and the manager who has been one of my direct reports over the last 14 years.

Douglas Girvan, a previous Registrar of the University and the then Student Services Manager Judith Gray, made an inspired, far-sighted, decision in March 1992 when they appointed a highly qualified (BA, BCom, PGDipArts) young 33-year-old Donna-Rose Harris to a newly created part-time position of Disabilities Co-ordinator at the University, a first for any New Zealand University. Donna-Rose was employed on the standard staff contract current at the time with one small contract variation being “some variation in use of hours possible by mutual consent.”

Within her first year of employment Donna-Rose had applied to the University for Study Assistance as she wished to study Philosophy 103 (Introduction to Moral & Social Philosophy). A year later she was applying for conference leave in Australia. The writing was on the wall as to where this young woman was heading and perhaps, because the University came to realise that this was no ordinary staff appointment, she was moved to be very close to her Manager and the Registrar in the Clocktower, a location where the Disabilities Service remained for a number of years before it outgrew the available space and migrated to other larger premises and eventually to their current location in the Information Services Building.

A year later in Donna-Rose’s first Performance Review it was clear she had her sights firmly set on what needed to be achieved. It is also clear from reading the documents accompanying this review that the University had a tiger and would need to pull out the stops if it was going to try and hold this tiger by its tail. In her own self review there was a list as long as your arm on the shortcomings in the University including “not enough resources; not enough time; people still see me as a ‘token’ gesture; some people don’t take me seriously; some regard my challenging ideas as militant; some think (a minority) that I am the easy way out for students.” Donna-Rose went on to say that her main strength was that she cared about people and was accepting of difference while at the same time recognising that her greatest weakness was her inability to say no.

That first year signalled clearly what was to follow over the next 21 years as this caring but very determined and fearless woman took on anybody or any institution that had, or created, barriers for students with a disability. It was the compassionate relentless sheer determination that most will remember her by. Property Services as one of many examples eventually realised like the rest of us, that this woman meant business. She knew her facts, she wouldn’t take no as an answer and she wouldn’t go away as she argued and showed that sometimes the architects were wrong or misguided in their interpretation of the Building Code standards. Donna-Rose had the Building Code, the Human Rights Act and many other critical pieces of legislation hard-wired into her very being.

Donna-Rose was the founder and driving force behind the establishment of "ACHIEVE", the National Post-Secondary Education Disability Network. Their annual conference was managed by the DIS team this week. What a week the team have had. I personally compliment them for the professionalism they have displayed, the collegial support they have shown not only to each other but also to all the conference delegates, students, staff and others who have all been grieving this week. Today, as a result of Donna-Rose’s work, there are teams supporting disabled students in all tertiary education institutions in New Zealand.

In 2011, she initiated the first disability studies conference in New Zealand, attracting leading world thinkers to Otago with the aim of establishing a centre of excellence and a chair in disability studies at the University. A new Summer School paper ‘Disabilities Studies’ was offered in 2013 for the first time, in large part as a result of Donna-Rose’s vision and desire to raise the profile and everyone’s knowledge and understanding of Disability issues.

The University and the New Zealand community have lost a truly remarkable trailblazer who has left us before her time. In her lifetime she has made lasting changes to how we think as a community and how we build and shape our students’ environment. If Donna-Rose can hear the comments of staff reacting to her sudden and unexpected death, she would smile and know that she had achieved one of her goals when staff say to their colleagues: “I had actually forgotten she had a disability”.

Thank you Donna-Rose, you have certainly left your mark and legacy for the future and we wouldn’t dare falter or deviate from the challenges you have set for all of us, since we know you will be watching closely!

From Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne (read by David Richardson)

The Vice-Chancellor is currently out of town but she has asked me to offer these words on her behalf:

“The University was shocked to learn earlier this week of Donna-Rose’s sudden death.

“First and foremost, I would like to extend my sympathy to Donna-Rose’s husband Ross, to her wider family, and to her team in the Disability Information & Support Office. Although the entire University will be mourning her loss, I recognise that Donna-Rose’s passing will cause a special kind of pain for those who loved her most and who worked with her every day. They will feel her absence most acutely and I would ask everyone who is gathered here today to remember to look after them in the days and weeks to come.

In many ways it is ironic that Donna-Rose was the Head of Service of our Disability Information & Support Office. As David already mentioned, anyone who knew Donna-Rose, very quickly forgot that she had any sort of disability. Her life and her work at the University of Otago was characterised by her immense ability. She was a living example of what is possible. She always asked what could be done, rather than what could not be done. Donna-Rose was a fierce advocate for the students in her care and she lived her life committed to the notion that every student had the right to study at Otago. She reminded the rest of us each and every day that it was our collective responsibility to make sure that happened. I know that Donna-Rose changed the lives of many—her personal strength empowered a whole generation of students. Although Donna-Rose had very tiny feet, she has left some very large shoes for us to fill. Like all of you gathered here today, I will miss her terribly.”

From the archives – stories about Donna-Rose from 2012

Below is a story from the Otago Bulletin last year celebrating 20 years of the University’s Disability Information & Support Service. In the story Donna-Rose reflects on her 20 years with the University.

Disability Information & Support celebrates 20 years

Looking back on 20 years of providing support to Otago students with disabilities, the Head of the University’s Disability Information & Support Service Donna-Rose McKay is “incredibly proud” at how accessible the University has become in that time.

As the service celebrates this milestone, Ms McKay has taken the time to reflect on some of the achievements of the service since it began in 1992.

From a trickle of students 20 years ago, last year some 665 students “came through the door” to access resources and advice.

“It’s always rewarding to see students graduate after overcoming challenges and making it through their studies at Otago. It’s good to see the tenacity of some of these students and what they achieve,” she says.

She believes that one of the service’s most significant achievements is that staff and students now expect to see others with disabilities on campus, and to be part of an environment which supports and values their needs.

“We also have a pretty darn accessible campus, and in some places where we haven’t achieved that yet, there is a willingness to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities; whenever there is a new development here, the University actively works to ensure that there are no impediments.”

Ms McKay started in 1992 as the University’s sole and part-time Disabilities Support Services coordinator. Now with ten staff, the service has grown to provide a wide range of learning supports to students with disabilities – be they temporary or permanent, and provides advice to other departments within the University.

“We have a fantastic team, with staff who have an incredible range of knowledge and skills,” she says.

“There are also students coming through now with more complex and challenging impairments needing support from our staff. Our main focus is always to help the student to become as independent as possible, and give them the skills and the confidence to know who to ask to get the support that they need.”

The University of Otago Disability Information Service team in 2012. Pictured are (standing, from left) Terrie Allpress, Sarah Grant, Helen Ingrams, Jacinta Latta, Jackie Fox, Eileen O’Regan, Rachel Aluesi, Emma Holt, (front) Jenny Weeks and Donna-Rose McKay. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

Otago Magazine profile

In February 2012, the Otago Magazine profiled Donna-Rose. Here is the feature, in which Donna-Rose spoke of her time as both a student and staff member at the University and the positive changes that she was instrumental in making for students at Otago.

When Donna-Rose McKay (Disability Information & Support – Head of Service) was a student at the University of Otago in the late '70s and early '80s her experience was vastly different to those of students with disabilities today.

Sitting in her wheelchair outside the registry building, in the rain, waiting for her bursary cheque to be brought out was pretty much the norm.

"My long-suffering friends pulled me up two or three flights of stairs twice-a-week to the top of the quad Geology building to my stats lecture because they refused to move the lecture to somewhere more accessible."

But attitudes were changing, and in 1992 McKay was taken on as a part-time disabilities co-ordinator, making 2012 the 20th anniversary of Disability Information & Support office.

The then equal employment opportunities co-ordinator Chris Smith had been helping students with disabilities and with the support of other staff and students had formed a group called DAG – the Disability Action Group. It was a huge help as McKay developed her fledgling role and by 1996 the position was full-time.

"One of the interesting things about it was that the university put this role in place prior to people with disabilities even having human rights in New Zealand," she says.

"It was even before the Ministry of Education mandated that tertiary institutions needed to consider the needs of disabled people – so Otago was ahead in both areas. It says a lot about the University and for DAG who were fighting like mad at a time when there was nothing to support them."

By 1998 increased funding saw a project officer and an administrator added, allowing McKay to begin establishing formal systems and start strategic planning.

"Until then we didn't think about processes, we just thought about who was at the door, who you were sitting down with, what they needed, how to get it - and sometimes where was the money coming from."

One of the people who was there in those early days is student advisor Emma Holt who originally started out as project officer, taking on a research project focusing on postgraduate students.

"I found I was really enjoying working with students. So when the research project finished I moved straight into student advising."

Holt stayed in the role for several years as the services grew but left at the end of 2000 as she began a family. Upon her return in 2009 she immediately noticed changes.

"I was thrilled to see a much larger team, not just working one on one but services like note-taking had become much more professional. The impression I got was that there was a lot more awareness around the campus."

McKay and her nine dedicated staff cater for a wide range of needs, from medical conditions and physical mobility impairments, through to specific learning disabilities and mental health conditions.

"The bottom line is that the students did the work themselves, we supported them and they are continuing to achieve in their paths."

Demographic data for 2010 showed that 1413 students or 6.38% of the student population were identified as having a disability. Of those 852 had a disability which affected their study. They resourced 653 students providing more than 25,500 hours of learning assistance.

Services range from employing note-takers to providing alternative test and examination arrangements, which can vary from providing a computer to having someone to write for them. Other services include providing interpreters, tutors and research assistants, or arranging the alternative formatting of printed material.

Full-time student advisors, based at the new DI&S offices in the Information Services Building, are available for students to discuss their requirements with and they will work with students to put in place a learning support plan.

During the course of the year DI&S employs between 300-350 casual staff to take on these roles. Most are students but they also have graduates and former staff involved. They are trained and get supervision and feedback to help them develop.

Half of the budget is funded by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC), the remainder comes through the University which also funds other disability-related initiatives.

While learning support services is a core function there are times that advisors need to help the students advocate for themselves or, with the student's permission, advocate for them.

Acting Learning Support Manager Jackie Fox says it can be as simple as liaising with a department because the student is anxious about doing it themselves.

A lot of advocacy can be around things such as helping a student get an extension or concerns about having difficulty accessing information.

"It may involve getting together with people in that department and brainstorming about ways to meet the student's needs.

"We do have a philosophy of 'nothing about me without me', so if we are going to be talking about student issues or on behalf of a student then the student is always involved in that."

But DI&S does need to advocate in the wider sense when policy changes are proposed, to make sure they have a positive rather than negative impact on students with disabilities.

McKay's own role now has moved away from hands-on operational work to a more strategic one, looking at how they can make the campus even more inclusive.

"The aim is to give departments greater responsibility to support students but at the same time provide them with the tools and the confidence to do that.

"A common misconception is that students with disabilities all cost money – they don't. In the majority of situations what is required is a change in process, of attitude and the way you possibly do things."

McKay says that having lecturers who teach inclusively and cater for a range of learning styles makes a big difference.

"If the way they teach meets the needs of all the students in the class, including disabled students, that would take so much work off our shoulders."

It is a formula that is still developing and evolving but over the years DI&S staff have seen some amazing success stories with students going on to achieve highly in their chosen fields but McKay deflects any credit.

"The bottom line is that the students did the work themselves, we supported them and they are continuing to achieve in their paths."

- Rest In Peace, Donna-Rose.