Letthe insists on one point: “Everyone is willing to help, but the system with all its rigid rules doesn’t allow it. I’m frustrated by the system, not by the people who are caught up in it.” Meanwhile, she has hope for the remainder of this academic year but is holding her breath for next year. “I don’t have all the solutions, either, but I do know that I shouldn’t be marginalised because of the way I was born.”

All the steps of the grieving process

Letthe was born with a hearing impairment. But with her hearing aid, she can handle anything, and that includes student life. Going to the pub or class were never a problem. Until the pandemic struck. The sound quality of the online lectures is too poor. “I don’t readily accept that my hearing aid restricts my life. But it’s like making someone who has very bad eyesight read very small letters. It either takes a lot of energy or it simply isn’t doable.” She has been trying for months; however, it has mostly caused her stress and anxiety. After a visit to a psychologist, she was diagnosed with burnout.

Letthe sounds calm as she tells her story. “I can talk about it so calmly because I have already gone through all the steps of the grieving process,” she says with a laugh. “And what’s the point of being angry all the time? That doesn’t get you anywhere.” Is she angry and sad? “Absolutely.”

Letthe is doing a double major in Economics and Law, and would love nothing more than to complete both bachelors. She still needs to complete one more subject for Economics, but was unable to finish it because of the onset of the pandemic. Letthe also needs to complete 60 credits for Law, although she has already written her thesis. She’s made a start on the Behavioural Economics masters, however, as long as the courses are online she is unable to make any progress. By e-mailing and speaking to student advisors, student deans, and lecturers, she is trying her best to get an education. “Luckily, I lost my job,” says Letthe sarcastically. “This whole process takes so much time that it’s a part-time job.”

Bureaucratic ping pong

After the summer, Letthe felt energised enough to resume her studies. But it is not easy. Classes are still online and the sound quality is still too poor. Plus, getting the right help is not straightforward. An oral interpreter helps other hearing-impaired students. “I don’t have a right to that, because I’m not deaf enough to claim it. The UWV (Netherlands Employees Insurance Agency, ed.) organises these interpreters, but it turns out to be an enormously bureaucratic institution where the rules are set in stone. They were drawn up before corona and haven’t been amended yet. Later on, it also turned out that there weren’t any interpreters available for Letthe. She is now studying for a specialised English-language master’s degree, which few interpreters are well-versed in and the demand for them has already been very high over the past year.

Within the walls of the Erasmus University, the request for help does not go smoothly, either. “And not only in my case. Every student with a hearing impairment has a story, even if there are only five or ten of us. Organise another lecture hall because the acoustics are too poor? Those kinds of things can’t be arranged at the drop of a hat.”

A recent rejection by the examination board stung Letthe the most. A teacher had offered to allow her to take an oral exam this summer and was also willing to help with the preparations. “That support, that ray of hope, made me feel so good. Even if it was just for one subject, it was what I held on to.” The teacher approached the examination board to ask for permission, but apparently Letthe should have done that herself. So, the request was rejected – because she should have gone to the study advisor first. “I had already done that ages ago, but that’s how the rules are. There is no room to look at what a student actually needs. An examination board should uncork a bottle of champagne when a lecturer comes to them to help a student!”

'I feel handicapped for the first time'

Letthe Riemen
Image credit: Amber Leijen

For the first time in her life, Letthe feels disabled. “I was always a bit proud, because this makes me who I am. I was at peace with my disability. This past year, for the first time, I wished I didn’t have it. I have always been assertive enough to go after anything, but how do you fight a pandemic and a system with these kinds of rules? I started to feel guilty for asking for help like that. Was I overreacting?”

Officially, Letthe is still a student at the Erasmus School of Law, but in her mind, she has already drawn a line through her law studies. “Giving up is really one of the hardest things. I was so enthusiastic about that course of study. The double major of Law and Economics is perfect for me. I didn’t want to stop, but after my burnout, it became clear to me that I can’t handle a double major at the moment.” She had wanted to specialise in labour law. “I worked so hard to get admitted and then to do the studies. Once, I completed 120 credits in one academic year. At the time I thought: This makes me really happy. She is not looking forward to continuing at the moment. Finishing economics, which she is further along with, is already becoming a challenge because of corona. “And I don’t want to keep racking up debts. I also want to move forward.”

Happy end?

In late April, Letthe sent an email to the Rector Magnificus Frank van der Duijn Schouten. She let him know that she was deeply disappointed that the university had not helped her. She describes feeling powerless and frustrated and ‘unable to hold back her tears’. The secretariat first forwarded the email to the student deans, but three different student deans were unable to help her. The email to the rector eventually led to a conversation with the study advisor and the dean.

“Things will work out this year”, says Letthe, cautiously optimistic after the interview. Her lectures now include subtitles. Earlier this year, she had already taken part in a trial that ran for a brief period. The system is now being purchased and she is allowed to use it. “Next year will be exciting,” she says of her master’s degree. “It’s going to depend on an assertive and accessible study advisor and a cooperative examination board.” If education remains online, substitute assignments might have to be submitted to the board.

One thing that Letthe fervently hopes is that future students will be given better help. A culture change is needed for this, she says. She herself has tried to find help everywhere. “I also asked for help at the Diversity and Inclusion department, but they told me that it wasn’t their responsibility. I laughed in disbelief: People with a disability are not treated inclusively, but the bureau against discrimination and for inclusion can’t help me?!” A hidden disability is still too often overlooked, according to Letthe. “You would never say to someone in a wheelchair: ‘Walk up those four flights of stairs yourself.’ But I am told to do just that because the rules don’t always allow students to get help.”

Response from Frank van der Duijn Schouten, Rector Magnificus Erasmus University Rotterdam:

As former chair of the Expertise Centre for Inclusive Education (formerly known as the Handicap & Study Foundation), I personally feel as if I’ve been held to account by Letthe’s story. Of course, in such a large educational organisation like the EUR, we cannot function without rules, guidelines and systems. But as a university community, we must also do our best to find solutions to individual cases where the application of the rules clearly leads to the wrong resolutions. I know that examination boards within our university are generally vigilant about this too. I therefore deeply regret that it took far too long to find a solution to Letthe’s situation. It is good that she has come forward with her story, because the least we can do is learn from it.”

Framework Studying with a disability

Regina de Bruijn-Boot and Marlijn Wagenaar from Studying with a Disability say they are familiar with Letthe’s story. They also acknowledge that some processes move slowly. The student deans also hope that other students will seek help if they need it. Any questions can be sent to smf@eur.nl. For instance, anyone who wants subtitles with their lectures must first apply for them, as the licenses are issued per student.