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Students with a disability do not want to go back to ‘normal’

illustratie: Julika Runow
illustratie: Julika Runow

Things should not go back to the ‘old normal’ after the COVID-19 pandemic: higher education can and must become more accessible to students with a disability, argues lobby organisation Ieder(in).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education quickly switched to online learning. All at once, the standard courses available also satisfied the needs of students with a disability. “That says a lot about the accessibility of education before the pandemic and we mustn’t go back to that situation”, says Lydia Vlagsma of Ieder(in), the umbrella organisation that promotes the interests of people with a disability.

Energy left over
For Claire van den Helder, student of cultural anthropology at Leiden University it was a lot easier to study during the pandemic. “Online learning was an eye-opener for me; I can take part in classes and still have energy left over at the end of the day to do some cooking”, she says. Van den Helder suffers from chronic fatigue. Spending a whole day on the campus uses up “a huge amount of energy”. Classes during the pandemic were online, so she could go and lie down in between them if necessary.

Van den Helder’s story is not unique, Lydia Vlagsma tells us. For a number of students it was a lot easier to take classes during the pandemic whereas before so many laborious adjustments had to be made. In her view, higher education institutions often do not understand what students need.

More than wheelchair-friendly
Accessible education is more than just a wheelchair-friendly lecture hall, she explains. “Is there somewhere available to rest or take medicines, for example? And are lecturers sending documents in a format that can be read aloud and do videos have subtitles?” Those are the sort of things that often go wrong, according to Vlagsma.

The pandemic made Ieder(in) reflect again about higher education. “At present it is quite strictly regulated: you have to stick to a particular tempo and a particular form. That’s actually rather surprising, because there are plenty of examples of flexible education, such as part-time learning for adults and a language app like Duolingo”, says Vlagsma.

Higher education can learn a lot from that, she believes. “Why can’t you take a few weeks longer for a subject, for instance? Or take a subject online while other students are in the classroom? Options of that kind would be very valuable.”

Flexible education
Education is currently not very flexible, in Van den Helder’s opinion. “Before the pandemic, online lessons were not an option at all, but even now it isn’t plain sailing. If I want to attend a lecture online, I have to send a separate email to the lecturer and the student counsellor to get their permission. But my fatigue is very unpredictable so if I feel tired at the last moment, I have to hurriedly explore the options”, she says. “It shouldn’t be viewed as such an exceptional situation and it needs to be better organised; I know that there are other students that are inconvenienced by it”, she adds.

For Lydia Vlagsma, the contrast between face-to-face and online learning is too black-and-white. “That was what I didn’t like about the motion in the House of Representatives by SP member Peter Kwint, in which he says that face-to-face learning must remain the norm.” Vlagsma believes the two are not mutually exclusive. “That distinction diverts attention from the real issue: how do you create a form of learning that works for everyone and maintains the high quality of education.”

In fact, Van den Helder would prefer not to follow the entire programme online. “I also want to be with my fellow students when I’m up to it, because that makes studying a lot more fun. In an ideal world both forms are possible. Then I would try to attend in person as much as I can and take lessons online at other times, without having to jump through hoops or always worrying about having a guilty conscience.”

Lecturers also ought to get help providing such a form of hybrid teaching, Vlagsma adds. “It costs time and money but the alternative is that a group of students is excluded from education. And the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that people with a disability have the right to take part in education on an equal footing. Educational institutions are obliged to facilitate that, unless it is disproportionately demanding”, she explains.

“We saw during the pandemic how much is possible in education. You can no longer maintain that it’s impossible to take account of students who have different needs. The institutions have to discuss that with their students”, says Vlagsma.

Custom solution
Universities of the Netherlands (UNL) and the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences (VH) say that they learnt a lot during the pandemic about online education. But a permanent arrangement for students with a disability is not yet in sight: the UNL wants to offer “a custom solution wherever possible” and the VH wants to “try to meet students’ needs on a case-by-case basis”. They also agree that it is “extremely complicated” to provide all the teaching both face-to-face and online.

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