Student - 13 november 2014

Student life with a disability

Carina Nieuwenweg

Getting to class on time, signing up for courses, reading a course book or participating in group work… all in a day’s work for students. But what about if you are blind? Or have a form of autism?
Or another disability?

There are hundreds of students in Wageningen who have the academic ability required for a university degree, but are challenged by a physical or mental disability. The university caters well for these students, suggest the latest figures from the national student survey. With this year’s score of 3.7 out of 5, Wageningen holds on to its position as the best of the Netherlands’ higher education institutions when it comes to provision for students with a disability. The students are particularly satisfied with their teachers and study advisors. But who are the faces behind the figures? What is it like to be a Wageningen student with a disability? Resource talked to four students. ‘I can’t join in everything and often have to say ‘no’.'

Who? Marlijn Wagenaar

Programme? first-year MSc Health and Society

What? Blind


‘Although I only started my course in Wageningen recently, I already feel that everything is well arranged for me. All the teachers were informed in advance and did their best to cater for me. One teacher asked in the first class if I could tell my classmates a bit about my guide dog Owen, so they would know how to treat him. I had never been asked that before. I’ve got a programme on my computer which reads out a digital text. That enables me to read my course books, but then I do have to ask for the book at least 10 weeks in advance. That was quite a problem at the start, since teachers hadn’t decided yet which book they wanted to use, or which edition. After some effort, good arrangements have been made for me to take exams too. I am allowed to sit in the teachers’ rooms with an invigilator. Because I am not allowed to use the internet, I get the exams on a memory stick. Fortunately I have a good relationship with the study advisor, which makes the studying easier too. I still live in Nijmegen because my friends and my sporting life are there. In terms of accommodation, I also need to be able to walk Owen. One problem for me is that a lot of the buildings where my programme is taught are not on the campus. That makes it difficult to navigate, both for me and for Owen, especially as the buildings often have several exits, so I get disorientated. And we have classes in many different rooms and buildings, so Owen gets the routes mixed up and gets confused. For example: When I have to go to Axis for a class, Owen sometimes wants to take me to Radix, because I sometimes have to be there too. So for the time being someone has to come with me to lead me to the right building – just until I’ve learned the way, hopefully. On the other hand, it is an advantage that the campus here is so green, so it is easy to walk Owen.’

Who? Quintin van Zuijlen

Programme? Second-year BSc Molecular Life Sciences

What? Autism

Quintin GA--20141106-N75_0646.jpg

My studies are going great. I am now in my second year and I haven’t had to resit a single exam. Some students with autism have a far harder time, which is why we are allowed to apply for an extra year to complete a programme. As far as I know, you go on getting your grant in that case, but I hope I won’t need to do that. I think Wageningen University has dealt with my autism very well and I can’t think of anything that should have been done differently. When I was new in Wageningen, I was given a student buddy, especially because I have autism. In the first year we saw each other at the beginning of every week and talked about what was going well and what wasn’t. If there was something I didn’t understand, for example how I should sign up for courses, my buddy helped me with that. For matters outside the university I have Stumass, a healthcare organization which provides guidance for students with varying degrees of autism. Twice a week I have a meeting at Stumass in which all sorts of things are discussed, such as how I live, and how it is going with getting to sleep at night, and with showering, cooking, friendships, and social skills. Through Stumass you can also live in a house for people with autism, where there is supervision all day. I felt the need to live in a house like that, but I was not diagnosed as needing it. Because of my autism, I did get priority with Idealis for a place at the Marijkeweg, where I have my own facilities. The advantage of that is that I can choose whether to mix with others or not, whereas you can hardly avoid it in some of the other residences. But I don’t avoid socializing. Sometimes I arrange to meet up with people from my degree programme, and I am a member of Alchemica study association, where I am on the first-year committee. I like socializing, even though it is hard for me.’

Who? Kilian Duijts

Programme? First-year BSc Plant Sciences

What? Spasticity

Kilian GA--20141106-N75_0680.jpg

‘I notice how open people are in Wageningen. If they see me walking on crutches they just ask what I’ve got. Then I explain that my muscles contract too much, which makes them shorter. And that affects my motor skills. I like the way staff and students are not afraid just to ask me what I’ve got. It gives me a chance to explain what I can and can’t do. Because I sometimes go around in a wheelchair people often think I can’t walk at all. That is not the case. The wheelchair is more of a backup. I do use the crutches a lot, especially for longer distances or on uneven ground. The biggest challenge for me is to find the right study routine. Just like other students, actually. There is a lot to do and I go out at least once a week. I never did that in Leiden, where I come from. I had to work hard at secondary school. In the third year I missed one third of my classes because of a serious operation. I then did all I could to pass the year anyway, and I managed. Rehabilitation and training took up a lot of time too. I trained for 25 hours a week. I still have to train my leg muscles using weights so that I can walk for longer. But here in Wageningen I haven’t found much time for that yet. So I notice that I get tired faster and have more trouble walking long distances. That is a difference between me and other students. Once I’ve been in Wageningen a bit longer I’m bound to find a good balance between my studies, training and all the other nice things you can do here. It might sound strange, but one of the big challenges for me is cleaning the floor. All the other housework goes fine, but mopping the floor is a difficult movement. But I’m sure I’ll find a solution to my floor-mopping problem.’

What? Lisa Hensen

Programme? First-year BSc Plant Sciences

What? Chronic tiredness

Lisa GA--20141104-N75_0256.jpg

‘In the fifth year of secondary school I suddenly lost a lot of weight. I got steadily thinner, and the doctors couldn’t find a reason. Eventually I became dangerously underweight. Even my heart began to malfunction. It took two years for them to discover that I had lactose intolerance. I banned the culprit, the milk sugar lactose, from my diet straightaway and I’ve been getting better since then. But I did have to take an extra year to finish high school, and I didn’t have a nice last year. Due to my illness, I missed out on a lot of fun in the last three years at high school. Now my weight is back to normal, but the period of being underweight has affected my body. I tire quickly and still can’t join in everything. Luckily the university is very flexible. The study advisor and the dean told me I should just make a start on my programme. If it proves too much, they can set up an adjusted programme in which I can take longer to complete my degree and will still get a grant. At first I could follow classes fine. But after four weeks I started to get very tired and I could barely keep up. That was very disappointing. Of course I would prefer to complete my degree without any extensions. But sadly that is not realistic. It affects my social life too. I can’t join in everything and I often have to say ‘no’. I joined the youth club Unitas so that I can still feel like a real student. Fortunately, there are not as many commitments in Unitas as in other student societies. I don’t have to go to parties and we regularly enjoy a meal together. I don’t tell everybody I meet about my issues. That’s just not the way I am. I only tell the whole story to students I have to collaborate with on a project. Sometimes people say silly things, like when I take the lift instead of walking. I usually take no notice. After all I know better.’

Foto: Guy Ackermans