Hisayo in "Accessibility for All at Higher Education" Seminar

By Hisayo Katsui

<--In the picture, Amu Urhonen is talking about the link between education and daily life outside of the education institutions.

on 6-7.5.2009, the seminar was organised in Helsinki. There were 120 participants, most of whom were university staffs, students' associations, and organisations of persons with disabilities from all over Finland. This is part of a project (http://esok.jyu.fi/) funded by the Finnish Ministry of Education between 2006 and 2009 to improve the accessibility (not only physical but also attitudinal/psychological/social ones) of students with disabilities at Finnish higher education institutions.

Some keynote speakers were from Norway, Sweden and UK which have all developed systematic and legal environments to ensure accessibility of their students with disabilities. In those countries, major universities have accessibility/disability coordinators as a focal point and they give general and specific advices both to teachers and students how to make the education accessible. In Sweden, 0.3% of the annual university budget is earmarked for meeting different needs of students with disabilities, while Norway has a National Coordinator for Accessibility in Higher Education established by the Ministry of Education in 2003 as a permanent structure supporting accessibility issues. Both universal design and individual adjustment with reasonable accommodations are argued to be necessary.

On the second day, more down-to-earth accessible teaching methods were introduced in different groups. I attended the ones by Professor Alan Hurst of UK and by Paula Pietilä of Finland who is the disability coordinator at Turku University. It was pointed out that anticipatory duty is important. That means, teachers take a measure to reasonably accommodate students with different impairments even before the students disclose their impairments. For instance, majority of students with disabilities in higher education institutions are those with dyslexia at present. One of their biggest challenges is note taking. To remove this challenge away, teachers can deliver lecture notes beforehand to students. Also, for visually impaired students, teachers can make sure that visual materials are accessible. However, “as inclusive as possible” has some limitation because teachers cannot anticipate and have knowledge on all needs of different individuals. Then, teachers are supposed to encourage students to disclose their impairments to facilitate accessibility arrangement. Agreement of confidentiality or permission of sharing the information with other teachers would be asked at this point.

Amu Urhonen from the students' association made an important link between education and daily life outside of the educational institutions: when the arrangement for living daily lives does not go well (ex. When one does not know who goes shopping tomorrow), the education becomes inaccessible.

Compared with the situations in those countries, our Finnish academic environment is lagging far behind. Accessibility/disability coordinators are situated in only few universities, though the awareness is increasing especially when social aspect has become important in the Bologna Process. In Finland, accessibility is not a priority in many higher education institutions, while each university is responsible for allocating resources for improving the accessibility. Many of the adjustments are made on sporadic terms, and persons with disabilities too frequently have to fight for it or to give up.

This was a timely seminar for our project, too, as we have encountered too many difficulties in our academic lives during the last few years. Our team discussed how to make the perception towards accessibility to an added value for the university rather than costly problems of individuals. We hope and try to influence that accessibility will be part of the quality work that the university ensures and makes efforts on, because it is a good advertisement of the university to even PR when accomplished!Hopefully more policy makers both at national level and at education institution level see this as a great opportunity and exercise their political will and leadership to make a positive change in the near future also in our country.