During the pandemic, the higher education sector managed to make a very quick switch to online teaching. Suddenly the courses were a lot more accessible to students with functional impairment. “That says a lot about the accessibility of the education system before the pandemic, so that’s not what we should aim to return to”, says Lydia Vlagsma of Ieder(in), the umbrella organisation promoting the interests of people with disabilities.
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Studying with a functional impairment
What is it like to study with a disability? Often there are extra challenges, and many…
Enough energy left
Claire van den Helder, who studies cultural anthropology at Leiden University, found studying a lot easier during the pandemic. “Online classes were an eye opener for me. Suddenly, I was able to attend classes and have enough energy left over at the end of the day to cook dinner”, she said. Van den Helder suffers from chronic fatigue. Attending lectures and seminars on campus is ‘immensely draining’ to her. Because all her classes were online during the pandemic, she was able to lie down in between seminars if needed.
Van den Helder is not the only student to have had such an experience, says Vlagsma. For certain students, attending lectures became much easier during the pandemic, whereas before the pandemic they would require all sorts of complicated modifications. She says that universities and universities of applied sciences often do not understand what kinds of modifications students need.
More than wheelchair-friendly lecture theatres
Vlagsma explains that accessible education means more than just ensuring that lecture theatres are wheelchair-friendly. “For instance, are there any rooms where students can rest or take their medication? And also, do lecturers send text documents in a format that allows for text-to-speech conversion, and do they add subtitles to their videos?” Vlagsma says that these sorts of things are often lacking.
The pandemic caused Ieder(in) to reflect on the nature of higher education. “The rules are kind of strict at the moment. You have to complete your degree programme at a predetermined rate and according to a predetermined structure. Which is kind of weird, because there are many examples of flexible education. Take part-time degree programmes for adults, for instance, or a language-learning app such as Duolingo”, says Vlagsma.
She feels the higher education sector could learn a few things from those systems. “For instance, why can’t they give students a few more weeks to complete a course? Or allow some students to take a course online, while other students attend seminars in person? Having the opportunity to choose would be very valuable.”
Online classes are not necessarily accessible to everyone, as economics and law student Letthe previously told EM.
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Van den Helder has found that the curriculum is not very flexible at present. “Before the pandemic, attending classes online wasn’t an option at all, but even now, it’s still not very easy. If I wish to attend a lecture online, I must send an email to both the lecturer and the academic adviser to be granted permission to do so. But my bouts of fatigue are very unpredictable, so when they happen, I have to go through the whole process at the last minute, when I’m already feeling tired”, she says. “It shouldn’t be such an exceptional situation. Things should be arranged better, because I know there are more students who suffer from this problem.”
Lydia Vlagsma feels the dichotomy between in-person classes and online classes is too black and white. “That’s why I didn’t agree with SP-affiliated Member of Parliament Peter Kwint, who filed a motion stating that in-person classes should be considered the norm.” She feels the two can go hand in hand. “Such dichotomies detract from the real question to be answered: how to create classes that work for everyone while still allowing for high-quality education.”
Van den Helder would not like to take her entire degree programme online. “I want to be able to see my fellow students when I can, because it makes being a student so much more fun. In a perfect world, I’d be able to do both. I would try to attend in-person classes as often as possible, but join the others online if I have to, without having to jump through all these hoops or feel bad about it.”
Vlagsma adds that lecturers wishing to offer such hybrid courses should be given some assistance. “It takes time and money, but the alternative is the exclusion from education of a particular group of students. And the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stipulates that people with functional impairment have the right to education on the basis of equal opportunity. Education institutions are required to accommodate them, unless this requires an excessive effort on their part”, she explains.
“During the pandemic, we saw just how many things could be arranged in the education sector. So don’t tell me now that no consideration can be shown to students whose needs are a little out of the ordinary. Education institutions should be talking about this with their students”, says Vlagsma.
‘Personalised approach if the situation allows it’
The umbrella organisations representing Dutch universities (UNL) and universities of applied sciences (VH) say they learned a great deal about online education during the pandemic. However, they are not ready yet to introduce a systematic arrangement for students with disabilities. The UNL seeks to offer a ‘personalised approach if the situation allows it’, while the VH wants to ‘try to give individual students a helping hand’. They both agree that it is ‘quite complicated’ to teach all their courses both in person and online.