Organisation - April 14, 2010

Overcoming limitations

About 10 percent of all students have a functional limitation that affects their studies. In Wageningen only about half of these knock on the student dean's door. A group of students is trying to break down the barriers.

From left to right: Marina Sanders, Anouk Schrauwen and Mascha Rasenburg.
'Because I'm hard of hearing, it takes more energy for me to listen and I get tired faster. I had been told this, but I'd never really thought about it until I started at University', says Mascha Rasenburg, who is doing an MSc in Environmental studies. As a bright eyed first-year, she did not want to draw attention to her hearing difficulties - she hears about 40 percent of what goes on. 'That was stupid. I thought I could manage. I didn't want to accept that I was different.'
Mascha has been using a hearing aid in both ears since she was four. At secondary school she also wore a little box with a receiver and a microphone round her neck, and so did the teacher. 'That was pretty obvious, but at secondary school everyone was used to it. At University you get a new teacher in every class, and I was afraid of standing out.'

Lazy student
Around four or five percent of the Dutch first-year students go to the dean about a functional limitation, says student dean Frans Zoon. He is aware of the barriers for these students. 'First years find it particularly difficult to tell anyone. And it isn't always necessary, but sometimes it really is, so as to avoid giving the wrong impression. For example, if you are often late in handing in your assignments, people can get the impression that you're a lazy student.' The dean emphasizes that students can go to the student doctor, student psychologist, the deans and their study advisers. There are many possibilities, such as extra time during exams. It is even possible to ask for an extra year of government funding for your studies.
For Anouk Schrauwen, fourth-year BSc student of environmental studies, it was a huge relief to go to the dean. In the course of her studies she went down with fibromyalgia, a kind of rheumatism that causes pain in the muscles and ligaments around the joints. The constant pain made her tired, and tiredness caused concentration problems. 'Everything went wrong with my studies then. My mother sent me to the dean. Then I realized that there were lots of solutions.  For example, I am allowed to take longer over my studies and at that point I took one course at a time. That was such a relief.'
Now Anouk has a 75 percent course load. She plans her day well and takes breaks in the rest room. When she does group work, she tells the group about her difficulty right from the start. 'If I don't get something finished, it's a bit strange if I only tell them what the matter is afterwards. By now I have a very good idea of what I can manage.' Anouk likes to think in terms of solutions. 'I don't want to talk in terms of problems; it so quickly starts to sound like a story from Viva. I feel we've already got beyond that.'

'People with a disability often take longer to get their degrees. On the other hand, the dropout rate in the first couple of years is lower', says dean Frans Zoon. The first year is often a period of experimentation, Zoon explains. 'Then it usually becomes clear what you're up against. But we once had a dyslexic girl who got very high marks during her Bachelor's degree course. When she started on her Master's, her performance suddenly went downhill, and that was because it was in English. After that, she did as much as possible in Dutch.'
Students with dyslexia report to the dean relatively often. Take Marina Sanders, a third-year student of environmental studies. 'I asked about provision straightaway at the open day. I learnt to speak up for myself at secondary school.' The University lent Marina a laptop with Kurzweil, a program that reads texts aloud, which many dyslexics find useful. Marina liked it so much that she bought the program herself. Writing is very time-consuming for her, so she sometimes asks for extensions on report deadlines. 'Of course it is difficult to acknowledge your limitations. But you have to, so that you can study without constantly working yourself into the ground.'

Student Council
Mascha eventually graduated, but with very low marks. Then she went on the Student Council for a year, and was on the committee about studying with a disability. 'A student survey showed that teachers are not all particularly understanding. The deans then organized informative events for teachers as student counsellors.' And in the same period, the first information evening for students was held, in September 2008.
During her year on the student Council, Mascha went for therapy. 'I had to learn to accept that I got tired faster, and that I should tell that to teachers and my fellow students.' When she started on her Master's course, she did go to the dean, and she has started using a microlink - a modern version of the now outdated little boxes, which looks like a small remote control on a key cord. Before courses start, Mascha emails the teachers, telling them about her hearing difficulties and asking them to wear the microlink and to look at the audience while they lecture, so that she can lip-read. 'The response is usually positive. I have never had any strange reactions.'

Mascha will graduate in less than a year's time. There has been a follow-up to her work on the student Council : five students set up a 'power platform' in December. The platform aims to reach other students and exchange experiences during events such as lunches. 'Students still have to get over a barrier before they can go to the dean. We hope that it's easier to come to us first. And it's also just fun', says Anouk, one of the founders.
The platform will also advise the participation councils, the deans and the Workgroup on Provision for the Disabled. Because although Wageningen is doing well on providing for disabilities (see below), it doesn't get full marks yet. There has not much progress, for instance, with the use of WUR TV so that students can follow lectures later. By no means all the teachers are keen on filming their lectures, says Anouk. Another point: in the Forum, loop systems for the hard of hearing have been installed in the lecture theatres. Mascha tested them at the time. 'The volume was too low. The loop needed to be disconnected from the boxes, so that volume could be adjusted individually. That still hasn't happened'.

Lunch with the power platform
The power platform is organizing a lunch for students with a functional limitation on Monday, 3 May at 12.15 in the VIP room in the Forum. To sign up:

Students with a disability are satisfied with Wageningen
The Centre for higher education information (CHOI) conducted a survey among students with a functional limitation. The report, Studying with a handicap 2009, came out in March. Wageningen University came top of the class, as in previous years. Wageningen's overall score was a 7, while the collective score was 6.2. 'Wageningen is a small, manageable University, with relatively small programmes. That makes it easier for students to arrange things', explains student dean Frans Zoon.
Studying with a disability 2009 reports that almost 10 percent of students encounter difficulties in their studies due to a disability or functional limitation. In the vast majority of cases, this limitation is not visible. There are very few students with a visible disability, such as limited mobility or sight.
Illustration: A graph from the report, see page 7: