Letthe Riemen (26) does not need to think twice. How can the university become a better place for students with a functional impairment? “Student advisors should be given a greater say and should become more assertive”, she says without any hesitation. “They should be your lobbyist. They should be advocating for your rights. Right now, they‘re just channels.”
“Why do I have to constantly chase after ‘solutions’ for my hearing impairment right throughout my studies?” the Master’s student in Economics wonders. This concerns the provision of facilities which she, as a hearing-impaired student, needs. A lecture hall with good acoustics, subtitled videos, that students do not talk at the same time during lectures and so on. “A student advisor could send an email to lecturers: a student with a disability will be attending your lectures this coming term. Bear these points in mind: wear your microphone in lectures, provide subtitles to your videos and avoid assignments in groups where people talk at the same time.”
If student advisors have a good overview of the issues, students are then freed from having to arrange things just because they are hard of hearing, have autism or use a wheelchair. Letthe sees it as the solution to some of the extra stress that students with disabilities experience. “Perceptions have to change. Now it’s a case of: ‘That student wants this.’ But it should be: ‘We, as a university, want to see these kinds of adaptations in place for our student.'”
Letthe’s love for reading is helping her deal with study-related stress
What is studying with a functional disability like? Often there are additional…
Letthe knows better than anyone else how stressful it is to have to arrange a lot just to follow your studies. During the first year of the pandemic, she was unable to attend classes because she could not understand the online lectures. Videos from that time are still being used. These must be subtitled, otherwise Letthe cannot understand the videos. Now Letthe has to check if that is the case. And the more you have to arrange, the more time and effort it takes her. “Trying to make an adjustment at this university feels like trying to move a supertanker.”
Relaxation Letthe has always found in reading, sports and listening to podcasts. During the pandemic, she discovered that she is much more creative than she thought. “I get a lot of pleasure nowadays from drawing and painting, including painting walls and cupboards, for example. A ceiling in my house is now blue with clouds.” Not all projects go equally well, she admits. ”I have also tried to have plants in my room, unfortunately they have all fallen so far.”
Plenty of people want to help Letthe. Lecturers help her come up with ideas and student advisors advise her on where she needs to go. Nevertheless, she hopes that more long-term consideration will be given and less on a case-by-case basis. “How many students still have to fight this battle? I don’t understand why people with a functional impairment have to work so much harder. We already have to fight against prejudices. People often think that we are less intelligent because we have a functional impairment.”
She also sat on the programme committee of her bachelor for two years. There, she advocated for appointing a student advisor who stands up for students who have a functional impairment. She has not yet reaped the benefits of this during her master’s, she previously explained.
Letthe is often in front of the examination board in order to get the necessary adjustments. And those experiences are not always positive. “Without explanation, you are then told that nothing will be done. As a student, you are left empty-handed. Can I still continue my studies at all, you ask yourself. I still walk around on campus because the passion for my study is greater than the resistance I have experienced. It helps that I am also mega-headstrong when I find something inequitable. Unfortunately, there are also many students with a disability who rightly say: ‘I can’t study like this. I’ll do something else.'”
The five students that EM is following this year have all sorts of ideas for improving education for students with disabilities and are discussing these ideas this month. Mid-July, rector magnificus Annelien Bredenoord will also be responding to their experiences and suggestions that they shared last year.