The wheelchair race is part of the ‘Unlimited study success at the EUR!’. This event aims to raise awareness of functional impairments among students. The term ‘functional impairment’ refers not only to physical limitations (such as visual impairment or a motor skills disorder), but also disorders such as ADHD, ADD, autism, dyslexia or dyscalculia, chronic diseases (like cancer, epilepsy, diabetes), mental disorders such as depression, and eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia.
“Students with a functional impairment face a variety of problems,” says Roos Venema, an employee with the ‘Unlimited study success at the EUR!’ project. “It’s a big challenge for students with physical disabilities to get to classes on time, for instance, because they have to spend a long time waiting for the elevator, while students with certain mental disorders find it difficult to make plans, manage their time or cooperate with classmates.”
A lack of social acceptance by fellow students and lecturers is also a big problem. At least, that’s how students Rianne, Michelle and Caroline experience it. All three of them have a functional impairment that’s not always perceptible to their surroundings. “I have ADD,” says Michelle. “I have a lot of difficulty in concentrating, so I’m mostly exhausted after a long day. I find it almost impossible to maintain a social life in addition to my study and sometimes fellow students don’t understand that I have a hard time keeping up and don’t feel like going to a party.”
Rianne, Michelle and Caroline are critical of the university. “In my opinion, the assistance offered isn’t consistent with the education process itself,” says Rianne, who has ADHD. “For example, you can get a referral from a university psychologist to do ADHD courses, but if your study advisor doesn’t really understand what you’re struggling with, then courses don’t make much sense either.”
Michelle has a different experience. “A university psychologist once said to me: ‘you wouldn’t be able to study here at all.’ Because of my ADD, I probably don’t function like most people, but just because my brain is wired differently, it shouldn’t prevent me from studying here.”
Caroline, who was diagnosed with autism later in life, sought outside help after failing her first study at the EUR. “The university does try to help, but they don’t have the expertise, so they don’t really know what to do.”
There is room for improvement and Venema is committed to making changes at EUR. At this moment, for example, the university doesn’t know the exact number of students with a functional impairment. “Because not all students indicate that they have an impairment when they enrol. And when this information does emerge, it’s registered in different systems,” Venema explains.
In order to gain more insight into the problem, starting next year, a long-term study will be conducted on studying with a functional impairment at EUR. “We’re also working hard on setting up a better work process so that we can monitor and help the students better, for example by offering extra facilities or modified assignments. In short, extra support from the study advisor, lecturers and fellow students.”
But what’s also important, according to Venema, is that the students open up and report their disorder to their study advisor and lecturers. “Because how can we help them if we’re not aware of their problems?”
To address the problems of students with a functional impairment, the university has set up a student panel. Sanne is one of the members of this think-tank and she concentrates on practical matters such as accessibility on campus. “I pointed out, for instance, that the sidewalk at the SPAR supermarket was subsiding. The university fixed it fairly quickly so that it’s now more accessible for wheelchair users.”
Rianne is already thinking ahead: “It would be great if lecturers get coaching and training on how to help students with a functional impairment. What would also work very well is a ‘buddy system’, for example a third-year student who guides and helps you throughout your first academic year. I think that would work better than help from the dean or a study advisor.”
More people come to the Plaza to participate in the wheelchair race organised by Venema. With a time of 59.70 seconds, Benjamin Jansen is crowned the winner at the end of the afternoon. “This race makes it clear what kind of obstacles you have to face when you’re wheelchair bound,” says the winner after the race. “Now I only used it for half an hour, then it’s okay. But if you’re in a wheelchair all day, day in day out, it’s physically exhausting.”
According to annual report Studeren met een functiebeperking (Studying with a functional impairment), 16 percent of university of applied sciences students, 12 percent of bachelor’s students and 10 percent of master’s students have a functional impairment. This means that there are about 100,000 students in the Netherlands dealing with this issue.
The name of Rianne is made fictional at the request of the interviewee. Name is known to the editors.