Universiteit Leiden

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Studying with a disability: 'Accessibility alone is not enough'

How can we make studying easier for students with a functional disability? This will be the key question during a public conference on 20 April. Romke Biagioni (Fenestra) explains why there is such a need for this conference. Are you going to be there?

Why is this conference being organised?

‘Around ten per cent of students at Leiden University have a functional disability. In all, that's 2,600 people. Some of them have a physical handicap, but many have a less visible impairment, such as ADHD or rheumatism. Almost all these students experience some form of difficulty in their studies or student life. The problems they have cannot be resolved by simply making buildings more accessible. You also have to look for support tailored to the individual. That's what this conference is about.' 

Why is this the right time?

‘In 2016 the United Nations introduced a treaty to improve the position of people with a disability. This treaty states, for example, that students should in principle not have to ask for help themselves, but that the onus lies with the institution to facilitate the discussion. The Executive Board has been engaged with this problem for some time, but this treaty is a good impetus to take action.'

Who is the conference for?

‘It's primarily for students with an impairment in the broadest sense of the word: whether they're in a wheelchair or have epilepsy, autism, multiple sclerosis or coeliac disease. We're also keen to get lecturers to come along. In an earlier symposium on this subject we  learned that the contact between students and lecturers could do with some improvement. Students with dyslexia, for example, or ADHD already have extra time in exams and sometimes they have later deadlines. At the same time we also realise that these facilities are not properly adjusted to meet the needs of individual students. In many cases the staff at the programme department assume they know what the student needs.' 

What would be the ideal outcome of the conference?

‘Hopefully it will get students and lecturers talking to one another. In time it should lead to a better understanding between the two groups. If the lecturer knows what the student's needs are, he or she will be more able to make arrangements to meet the student's individual needs. It's often the little things that can make such a big difference. At the same time the student gets a better insight into the needs of the lecturer:  it isn't always easy to make teaching inclusive. Like all other students, those with a physical impairment still have to meet the learning objectives to earn their bachelor's or master's degree.' 

Functional disability in figures

Around 2,600 students at Leiden University have a functional disabity; that's ten per cent of the total number of students. Of this group, 25 per cent have a learning impairment, 25 per cent have a physical disability and 50 per cent have a psychological limitation. 

In the  learning impairment category, the large majority have dyslexia (98 per cent). The remaining students have dyscalculia (difficulty with making calculations or dyspraxia (difficulty with processing information). 

Students with a physical disability have very diverse complaints or conditions, varying from sensory limitations (impaired hearing or vision) to impairments of the nervous system, specific organs, tissue or motor function. 

Among those with  psychological limitations, AD(H)D is the biggest group. Other students have autism, anxiety disorders, depression or personality disorders (in the order of prevalence). 

If we look at study results, we see that students with a functional disability perform just as well or only slightly worse than 'regular' students. This applies particularly to students with a physical disability, AD(H)D and dyslexia. Students with a functional impairment generally take longer to finish their programme.