Inclusion: a university for all
TU Dortmund University plays a pioneering role in Germany in the field of inclusion. It offers advisory services for students with disabilities and is reducing structural barriers, thus creating a university for all.
People with disabilities and chronic illnesses are faced with a number of issues if they want to begin studying. At TU Dortmund University, these issues are addressed and students are given the opportunity to study with as few barriers as possible. In the interview, Andrea Hellbusch talks about the effectiveness of advisory services and about solutions to structural problems.
Inclusion has had a firm place on the agenda at TU Dortmund University for almost 40 years now. What was the motivation for setting up the present special needs office for students with disabilities (DoBuS)?
Andrea Hellbusch: There were two initiatives to begin with: One was set up by a professor who had seen good examples at U.S. universities, the other by the group representing the interests of students with disabilities or chronic illnesses that was founded at the end of the 1970s at TU Dortmund University. There was simply no specific advice or support for these students at the university. In 1977, this led to the first advisory service being set up for students with disabilities or chronic illnesses at TU Dortmund University.
Over the years, it became increasingly clear that new structures needed to be created for these students. TU Dortmund University has provided an increasing amount of resources for this task from its own budget. In 2001, the pilot study on a 'University for all' led to the creation of DoBuS in its present form, comprising the advisory service, the service for adapting study material suitable for blind and visually impaired students and the work place and pool of study aids for students with disabilities.
What exactly is inclusion?
Inclusion is a human right and is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Every person has the right to full participation in society. Inclusion is the opposite of exclusion. An inclusive society is one in which all people can lead self-determined lives on an equal footing. Every individual is seen as part of the whole, regardless of their national or ethnic origin, age, gender, religious affiliation, any disability they may have or other particular individual features. This is the difference to the concept of integration, in which a small group of outsiders joins a large group with a view to creating a homogenous society.
Reducing structural barriers
What exactly does your work involve?
Andrea Hellbusch: In addition to several services for small groups, we primarily offer individual advice and support. Students with disabilities or chronic illnesses all have very different needs. For example, we help the students apply for inclusion assistance, which may take the form of technical devices or assistants. In addition, we advise students on how to apply for special arrangements to compensate for disadvantages in exams: What aids are required, does there need to be a separate room, or does the examinee require more time? Moreover, we are also involved in providing expert advice to university teaching and administrative staff.
Our advisory services also help identify structural problems and barriers that we can subsequently address. For example, we adapt study material in various media to enable visually impaired and blind students to use it in seminars and lectures. We are also involved in accessibility issues relating to university buildings: The entire TU Dortmund University is gradually being equipped with a tactile paving system for the blind. DoBuS incorporates feedback into its work on an ongoing basis. Structures are continually being revised and adapted in this process. Our methodology has now become established as the Dortmund Approach.
Andrea Hellbusch is currently acting head of the special needs office DoBuS at TU Dortmund University’s Center for Higher Education. This semester, Dr Birgit Rothenberg, head of the unit, is interim professor at the School of Rehabilitation Science at TU Dortmund University, where the initiative to set up an advisory service for students with disabilities or chronic illnesses started out at the end of the 1970s.
Bearing inclusion in mind right from the start
You referred to a process. Where is this process heading?
Andrea Hellbusch: The process is ongoing and is far from being completed. We hope to mainstream inclusion at the university, thereby ensuring that it is taken for granted. Our aim is to bear inclusion in mind at the university right from the start.
And are you successful in pursuing this goal?
Andrea Hellbusch: DoBuS has been a core academic department at TU Dortmund University’s Center for Higher Education since 2013. That speaks for itself. Before that, we were always attached to a faculty. Our actual work has not changed as a result, but we are now obviously perceived quite differently as a core university department.
Are you trying to attract new students with disabilities or chronic illnesses?
Andrea Hellbusch: We go to various schools to provide information and talk about our institution. We also offer a three-day taster course every year for schoolchildren with disabilities or chronic illnesses, during which they can get a taste of everyday life as a student, clarify queries and try out teaching sessions. Many of these young people are not sure whether they will be able to cope with the acoustics in a large lecture hall, whether they will lose their bearings and whether their motor skills are sufficient for everyday life at university, and they need to work out how to organise the additional needs that arise due to their disability.
What problems are you faced with?
Andrea Hellbusch: One of the big basic problems are the resources. Are there enough staff to cover all the services offered? Although there is considerable willingness to provide support in the faculties, there is also a need for clarification about the details of how to provide appropriate compensation for disadvantages. And sometimes people simply do not understand.
We also have to cope with the general political conditions. At the moment, a new draft law on participation (Bundesteilhabegesetz) is being discussed. We believe that the new law in its current form may worsen the situation for students with disabilities. For example, the draft introduces stricter criteria for students with disabilities in accessing inclusion assistance benefits.
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Inclusion cannot be achieved overnight
What advice would you give to people who would like to get involved in inclusion at their university?
Andrea Hellbusch: Inclusion initiatives cannot be established overnight. They are based on a long development process, a large amount of resources, and participation by students with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Perhaps you could begin with an individual project? For example, we have got a group in which students with disabilities and chronic illnesses who are about to complete their degree meet regularly. They can benefit from sharing their experience with one another. We merely facilitate the group. It does not involve a large amount of resources, but the participants benefit considerably and support one another. Networking and exchange on inclusion issues with other universities can also drive development towards achieving a university for all.
Discussion about inclusion in the education sector
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