Beyond wheelchairs and ramps

A special post to commemorate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3

A collection of disability symbolsWhat do you think of when someone says “special arrangements for disability”? Do you know anyone who lives with a disability?

According to the UN, there are over 1 billion people worldwide who live with some form of disability. Wherever they are in the world, they face not only physical barriers, but also social, economic, and attitudinal barriers. Since 1992, the UN has aimed to remove these barriers through public awareness and understanding, with an international observance on December 3. The Day seeks to mobilise support for disabled people and maximise their unique contributions in political, social, economic and cultural life.

Closer to home, in the 2013/14 academic year, there was a total of 567 students studying with the University of London International Programmes who disclosed a disability to the University and have been approved for special examination arrangements in accordance with the International Programmes’ Inclusive Practice Policy. Through this policy, the International Programmes aims to ensure that all students are assessed entirely on academic ability, and that its services are available to all.

In the past year, the International Programmes conducted a survey of its disabled students. Whilst many respondents took pains to emphasise the friendly and understanding experience of liaising with the Inclusive Practice Office, the fact that some were grateful for not being made to feel a nuisance demonstrates the reality of the attitudinal barriers that disabled people face. Given that a vast majority of respondents further cited confidentiality concerns in disclosing a disability, this is particularly worrying, as disclosure is the first step to any support that may be offered. From this, it is clear that attitudinal barriers are the first hurdle to be overcome if a truly inclusive society is to be created.

So, to return to the title of this post: how does living with a disability really translate in the context of studying with the International Programmes? At a recent Inclusive Practice Panel meeting, it was noted that most able-bodied persons immediately associate specific access requirements with a ramp for wheelchair users. But what about a visually-impaired student who can’t use the VLE properly because there is no facility for enlarging it, or a deaf student who is presented with a video lecture without subtitles?

Sometimes, ‘special arrangements’ for a ‘disability’ really are just simple, everyday adjustments. For any able-bodied persons reading this post, have you never zoomed in on a PDF document to see better, or said on the phone: “text me, I can’t hear you over this noise”? Whilst the University will be providing a more formal response to the survey, the Inclusive Practice Office is aware that it needs to continually seek to improve the services it provides. Improvement, however, can only be possible with the aid of honest comments, feedback and suggestions from those with disabilities. To this end, every one of us can, in a wider sense, encourage disclosure and contribute to achieving the UN’s objectives in the smallest but also most important way: removing the existing attitudinal barriers to promote a more inclusive society.

This is the first in a series of blog posts by members of the University of London International Programmes’ Student Voice Group (SVG). SVG members attend committee meetings at the University and contribute a student perspective to discussions that can impact the student experience.

One Response to Beyond wheelchairs and ramps

  1. John T. Gregg, MD says:

    As a USA student in the programme for Economics, I would note that Europe has got a long way to go in the issue of handicap access. My sister in law uses a walker – lifelong issues – but has had significant problems in touring Europe – from recalcitrant travel groups – no walkers allowed – to access to religious and historical sites…including portions of the Vatican.
    She has 30+ years of demonstrating a lack of attitudinal barriers as a Substance Abuse Counselor for the Texas Department of Corrections, including maximum security prison duty – but will keep on battling her way into the great cities and sites of the World.

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