Over the past academic year, Erasmus Magazine followed five students with a disability. Audrey has autism, Letthe is hard of hearing, Hazem has ADHD, Linda is partially sighted and Kyra uses a wheelchair as a result of a hereditary condition. These students told us what it is like to be a student with a disability. They all came to the conclusion that the university could be far more accessible. The five experts with personal experience shared their ideas about this in previously published articles.
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Studying with a functional impairment
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“People always think in terms of ‘the norm’ and we find it very difficult to think in a broader and more inclusive way”, says rector magnificus Annelien Bredenoord. “You are aware of this when you yourself fall outside the norm in some way. Letthe stated in one of these articles that ‘Universities need to learn how to deal with people who fall outside the norm’. That really hit the nail on the head.”
Bredenoord herself knows what it is like not to fall under the norm, she says. “Every hotel I go to, I have to explain: ‘no, we don’t need two separate rooms. This is my wife. We are a family.’ And I could give a hundred more examples like that.”
A few weeks after her first workday, Bredenoord received an email from student Kyra about the inaccessibility of the campus. “That really shocked me. I thought: how is it possible that things like access to buildings are not in order? That was the starting shot for the Executive Board to get to work on this.”
The five students with a disability have all sorts of ideas for improving access to education. For starters, at present, they have to arrange a lot of things themselves. Student advisors should therefore be given more say and be more assertive, Letthe notes. They could then arrange for students to receive the support they need for each subject.
“I thought that was a very good suggestion, because I understand that you need someone on your side who is willing to put their foot down for you from time to time. But I don’t want to make any empty promises, given that the university is such a large organisation and a lot of things cannot be arranged from one day to the next.”
“You know, there is always something these students will need to take in their stride, even in their future work environment. Just as I have to explain in every hotel and to every custom officer that my wife, son and I are one family. I understand that this causes a certain amount of annoyance, because you have to explain and arrange things over and over again. As a university, we cannot eliminate that entirely. I would like to look at it from a more positive angle: it instils a particular kind of fighting spirit and resilience. I could read that in everyone’s story. It tends to enrich these students and make them more interesting people. Hazem, for example, mentioned that he sees his creativity as a positive side to his ADHD.”
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Educational institutions should teach students how to deal with stress and stimuli and give them a bit more space to recover from a lot of stress, Audrey believes. Which is why she proposes a so-called ‘recovery week’.
“That is one of the things we are already addressing. We have a Student Wellbeing Week and we put a lot of effort into the issue of student welfare. I think we are leading the way in that. Unlike ten, twenty years ago, we see personal development as a duty of the university.”
And introducing a mandatory recovery week for all faculties, is that an option?
“No, we shouldn’t impose such a thing. The set-up of education is way too diverse for each study programme. However, a project group is thinking about how to design a smarter academic year. We have one of the longest academic years of all Dutch universities. This could be shortened and made smarter, the curriculum of the separate faculties would then be better aligned with each other. This would give students and lecturers more breathing space.”
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Hazem also has an idea: teach lecturers what it is like to live with a mental disorder like ADHD or autism.
“Yes, good point, but it is also fair to say: we are already asking a lot of our teachers. They have to keep up to date with the teaching material, develop their didactic and pedagogic skills, then there’s the whole hassle with the online aspect and understanding how to make break-out rooms and goodness knows what else. Then I think: what else can we expect teachers to do? Their workload is already overwhelming.”
Make sure that students feel heard, Linda advises. Avoid such responses as ‘find that out yourself’ or ‘we’re not going to adapt that for you, it’s too expensive’.
“Students really shouldn’t receive those kinds of emails. It’s not right and it’s not acceptable. If I hear about it, I will always do something about it. A lecturer or other staff member must be able to say in all honesty: I really don’t know what to do and I need help. But I find those ham-fisted emails really quite unacceptable.”
Linda: Students with disabilities do not want to be treated as special, ‘we want to be heard’
What is it like to study if you have a functional impairment? There are often additional…
Something else that is noticeable is that students with disabilities sometimes get bogged down in the bureaucracy of the university. Kyra describes how they have to go from department to department to find out where to go to with their problems.
“Let’s be clear: I think things have to improve. A few weeks ago, the Executive Board adopted an action plan. It states, among other things, that we are going to improve physical accessibility. Buildings, toilets, public areas, everywhere needs to be accessible. This also applies to education, videos with subtitles and rooms with more or even less stimuli. We are basing our approach on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That is summed up as: accessibility is the standard and inaccessibility is something you have to be able to clarify.”
All these students are telling us that they have to work extra hard to pass their studies. Sometimes, things are made difficult for them. How is the university intending to do something about this?
“By seeing to it that the things we have to have sorted out are sorted out. That is stated in the action plan. We are a relatively new board and we wanted to know: What is the current state of play? What has been left unfinished in the past?”
“And the conclusion is that a lot is not up to scratch. During the time of corona, a lot of things were left hanging. Another factor is that it is not always clear where the responsibility lies. We are going to work that out. There was recently a vacancy for a student counsellor for the Studying with a Functional Impairment team, which is where they will play a role.”
When might students notice something of these improvements?
“I can’t say at the moment. Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic wand to make everything better at a single stroke. I would like to, but that’s not how it works. The challenges are still too big and too complex for that.”
“What I read in all the stories is that the students are saying: ‘We just want to receive a normal education.’ How difficult is that really? I find it complicated, because you want to be inclusive and not think in terms of pigeonholes. Yet at the same time, it is a question of providing customised support, because what works for one student may not work for another. Target group policy is needed, but without attaching any stigma. That’s an area of tension that I come up against as a governor.”
In the latest National Student Survey, the EUR shares last place with the University of Amsterdam when it comes to the levels of satisfaction among bachelor’s students with functional impairments. In the case of master’s students, Rotterdam ranks in the middle. Will this university climb up those lists in the years to come?
“I hope so, obviously. I also hope it is clear that I am not at all happy with these kinds of scores. I’ m really ashamed of the examples that the students cite in the series.”
In the Senate in 2015, you were involved in the decree that buildings with a public function have to be accessible. That stemmed from the aforementioned UN Convention. How has that changed your outlook?
“At the time, I was the spokesperson for this topic. When preparing something like this, you put yourself in the shoes of the people you are concerned with. It is only then that you realise how often there is junk, bicycles or whatever piled up on pavements. Or that the paving is uneven. I will never forget that.”
In 2019, an alliance of interest groups came up with a shadow report on the implementation of the decree on the accessibility of buildings. It states: ‘Awareness has risen, but this has not led to progress.’ How are you going to prevent that from happening here?
“It really is the case that this has the full commitment of the Executive Board. The subject is so broad and important that it merits effort from the whole Board. That said, however, the problems will not be solved next week.”
Will teachers be given support? I heard that there are lecturers at Economics, Letthe’s faculty, who no longer record videos because they don’t have the time to provide subtitles.
“We need to help and support lecturers so that they are able to provide made-to-measure solutions. Then the question comes up again: How? Are we going to organise this centrally? Per faculty? I personally am more inclined to concentrate expertise in this area.”