Rector magnificus: ‘The university must become more accessible to students with disabilities’

Erasmus Magazine followed five students with a disability in the most recent academic year. Audrey has autism, Letthe is hard of hearing, Hazem has ADHD, Linda is visually impaired and Kyra is in a wheelchair due to a genetic disorder. These students told what it is like to be a student with a disability. The university could be much more accessible, they all concluded. The ideas for this were shared by the five experts of experience in previously published articles.

Part of the Thesis

Studying with a disability

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“People always think from the ‘norm’, and we find it very complicated to think more broadly and from an inclusive perspective,” says Rector Magnificus Annelien Bredenoord. “You realize this when you yourself fall outside the norm in a certain way. “Universities need to learn to deal with people who fall outside the norm,” Letthe said in one of the articles. It really hits the nail on the head. ”

Bredenoord himself knows what it is like not to be the norm, she says. “I have to explain to every hotel I visit: ‘No, we do not need two separate rooms. This is my wife. We are one family.’ And I can give a hundred more examples. ”

A few weeks after her first day at work, Bredenoord received an email from student Kyra about the inaccessibility of campus. “I was very shocked by that. I thought: how is it possible that something like access to buildings is not in order? That was the starting signal for the management to get started with this.”

The five students with disabilities have all sorts of ideas for improving education. For example, they have to arrange a lot themselves. Study counselors must therefore have more to say and be more confident, says Letthe. They can then make sure that the students get the necessary support for each subject.

“I thought it was a really good suggestion, because I understand very well that you need some shoulders next to you, which sometimes hit the tables for you. But I will not give a false promise, for the university is a great organization, and much is not arranged from one day to the next.

“You know, somewhere these students will always show the way, also in their future work environment. As I have to explain in all hotels and customs that my wife, son and I are one family. I understand very well that it brings some anger, for one has to explain and arrange it again and again. We as a university cannot completely take that away. I would like to look at it positively: it creates a certain fighting spirit and resilience. I read that in all the stories. It makes these students richer, more interesting people. For example, Hazem described seeing his creativity as a positive side of his ADHD. ”

Letthe Riemen_photo by Ronald van den Heerik

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Educational institutions should teach students how to deal with stress and stimuli and give them some more space to recover from a lot of stress, Audrey believes. They also need to provide space to recover from a lot of stress. She therefore suggests a ‘collapse week’.

“It simply came to our notice then. We have a Student Well-being Week, and we are committed to student well-being. I think we are leading in that regard. Unlike ten or twenty years ago, we see personal development as a university task. ”

And to impose a collapse week on all faculties is such an option?

“No, do not force it. The structure of the education is too different from education to education. A project group is thinking of a smarter academic year. We have one of the longest academic years of all Dutch universities. It can be made shorter and smarter so that the educations at the faculties become better coordinated. It gives students and teachers more respite. “

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Hazem also has an idea: Teach teachers what it is like to live with a mental illness such as ADHD or autism.

“Yes, good point, but it is also good to say: We already demand a lot from our teachers. They need to keep up with the teaching material, develop their didactic and pedagogical skills, so all that hassle with online and understand how to make breakouts, and I know it all. I think then: what else can we give the teachers? Their range of tasks is already enormous. ”

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Make sure students feel heard, Linda adds. Avoid comments like ‘find it yourself’ or ‘we will not customize it just for you, it’s too expensive’.

“Students should not receive such emails. It is not right and it is not possible. If it comes to my attention, I will always do something about it. A teacher or other staff member should be able to say honestly: I know “I really do not and need help. But I find the clumsy emails really unacceptable.”

Linda Koster June 2022 - Ronald van den Heerik

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Another thing that stands out is that students with a disability sometimes get stuck in the university bureaucracy. They have to move from department to department to find out where they can go with their problems, Kyra describes.

“Let it be clear: I think it should be better. A few weeks ago, we laid down an action plan in the management. It says, among other things, that we want to improve physical accessibility. Buildings, toilets, the public area, everything must be accessible “It is also about education, about videos with subtitles, about spaces with more or less stimuli. We are based on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The summary is: accessibility is the norm and one must be able to explain inaccessibility.”

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All of these students say they have to work extra to get an education. It is sometimes made difficult for them. How will the university do something about it?

“By making sure that the things we need to have in order are just in order. It is stated in the action plan. We are a relatively new board and we would like to know: what is the current situation? What has been left behind in the past? ”


When will students notice any of these improvements?

‘I can not say that now. Unfortunately, I do not have a magic wand to improve everything at once. Of course I would like that, but that’s not how it works. The challenges are still too great and too complex.

“What I read in all the stories is that the students say: we just want to follow education. How hard is it now? I think it’s complicated, because you want to be spacious and not think in boxes. At the same time, it is tailor-made, because what works for one student does not work for another. Target group policy is necessary, but without creating stigma. It’s a field of tension that I run into as a driver. ”

In the latest National Student Survey, the EUR shares last place with the University of Amsterdam when it comes to the satisfaction of undergraduate students with a disability. Rotterdam is in the middle bracket of the champions. Will this university rise on these lists in the coming years?

“Of course I hope so. I also hope it’s clear that I’m not happy with that kind of scoring at all. I’m really ashamed of the examples the students cite in the series.”

In 2015, you were involved in the Senate in the decision that buildings with public function should be accessible. This stemmed from the aforementioned UN Treaty. How has it changed your view?

“I was a spokesman for this subject at the time. During the preparations, you sit in the place of the people involved. Only then do you realize how often rattles, bicycles, etc. no matter what standing on sidewalks. Or that the tiles are uneven. I will never forget that. “

In 2019, the Alliance of Interest Organizations presented a shadow report on the implementation of the decision on the accessibility of buildings. It says: consciousness has risen, but it has not led to progress. How do you want to prevent this?

“It really is the case that this has the full commitment of the Executive Board. The subject is so broad and important that it deserves the efforts of the whole college. But the problems will not be solved next week. “

Will there be support for the teachers? I heard that there are teachers at Economics, Letthe’s faculty, who do not make videos anymore because they do not have time for the subtitles.

“We must help and support the teachers so that they can offer tailor-made solutions. Then you come back to the question: how? Should we arrange it centrally? After faculty? I myself am more inclined to concentrate expertise in this area. ”

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