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On our way to barrier-free studying

The University wants to remove the barriers experienced by students with disabilities as quickly as possible. Our teaching must also become inclusive, which requires staff to realise what a disability means for a student. That’s why we’ve started the Drempelloos Studeren (Barrier-Free Studying) project, with four sub-themes.

Who knows better what students with disabilities need than the students themselves? That’s why Student and Education Affairs has set up several expert teams that will work toward improvements in a specific area. Students with disabilities are a very diverse group, ranging from visually impaired students to students in wheelchairs and from the chronically ill to students with a mental health condition. This requires a wide range of improvements.

These are the four thematic expert groups:

Digital accessibility

The importance of digital accessibility has greatly increased due to the coronavirus crisis. This is one reason why this group of experts is working closely with the Centre for Innovation, which specialises in the digitisation of education and digital learning innovation. Students with disabilities may need extra assistance, such as video subtitles on publicly accessible websites, alternative texts for images and websites designed for the use of assistive technology. The group is also working on guidelines to support lecturers and student supervisors who produce digital educational materials.

Ruud, member of the expert group on Promotion of Expertise
Ruud studied Computer Science in Leiden and is now following two master’s programmes: Statistics and Computer Science. Ruud has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ‘That means that I process information and thus learn in a slightly different way.’

‘Most lecturers are very understanding, but sometimes I feel I have to convince a lecturer that I have a disability. That’s annoying. Another issue is preparation for studying for a PhD or the labour market. The services the Univerity offers for this are not suitable for people with disabilities; the labour market looks a bit different for them, but there is no specialised help.

‘In terms of rules or measures to help students with disabilities, I would prefer that those measures help not only students with disabilities but all students. A good example is recording lectures so you can rewatch them. That’s also nice for students who sometimes have to miss a lecture.

‘And another thing. To take full advantage of an education, completing subjects is not the only thing that’s important. At least as important is building a social, academic and professional network. At first, people often see that I respond to things differently. Without a support network, I don’t always get the chance to show my strengths. This applies not only to students with a disability, but certainly also to students with a migration background.’

Read the full interview Ruud (in Dutch)

Exam facilities

Students with disabilities are often entitled to certain additional facilities when taking an exam. Those can be something relatively simple, such as needing more time than is officially available. The expert group on exam facilities is focusing on scenarios that provide more clarity in the administrative processes and remove the responsibility from the student: how can things be arranged (more) smoothly? The expert group is identifying exam-related processes and looking at how other institutions have organised their exam facilities.

Physical accessibility

Leiden University is known for its beautiful, historical buildings. However, accessibility could be improved in some cases. This expert group is also focused on improving the provision of information about accessibility, improving signage in buildings and making the emergency response plan more inclusive. A building survey will be conducted in January and will be the topic of a separate article.

Stan, member of the expert group on the Promotion of ExpertiseStan studied Law with a minor in Journalism and New Media. He then completed the master's specialisation in Criminal and Criminal Procedure Law. After graduation, he started another two master’s programmes: General Introduction to and Philosophy of Law at Leiden Law School and Philosophy of Law, Governance, and Politics at the Institute of Philosophy. He is currently completing his studies. Stan has attention deficit disorder (ADD).

‘I’m annoyed by the lack of computer workstations and spaces to work together, which condemns so many students to study in the chaos of their student house. That’s why I think the introduction of time slots is a good development. It prevents students from claiming a space for a whole day by leaving their stuff there, even when they’re elsewhere. I also like being able to rewatch lectures; I’m sure that’s here to stay.

‘I’ve been active in the ADD study group, where I've always been committed to improving the way we work. This could mean creating weekly planners or exchanging experiences, tips and solutions for common problems. Yet, the dominant feeling was often that the student must first fail before the programme offers any help.

‘My most important focus in the expert group is the idea that as a student with a disability, you should have a fixed point of contact. Ideally, this should be a special study adviser at the faculty. Always having different contacts isn’t useful, and it increases the barrier to talking to someone. A specialised study adviser is also desirable in the contact with lecturers because this can better guarantee legal equality. Finally, there should be a better regulation for study delay because, for students with disabilities, such a delay is often not incidental.’

Read the full interview with Stan (in Dutch)

Promotion of Expertise

Accommodations in the education of students with disabilities start with the people who create and provide that education, as well as those who supervise students. That makes it important to raise awareness in this group. The expert group wants to increase knowledge about studying with a disability among lecturers and student counsellors, as well as among other University staff. The expert group also would like to offer tools to make educational materials more accessible, for example. To this end, the expert group is looking to draw attention to this topic in existing workshops and training courses. In addition, the expert group is looking at how thesis supervision can be adapted and whether there can be faculty group meetings for students with disabilities.

Text: Corine Hendriks
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