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Dealing with Changes in Supporting Students with Disabilities in Higher Education - Petz, Andrea

Andrea Petz, Klaus Miesenberger
Institute Integriert Studieren, Johannes Kepler University of Linz, Austria



Following a study on the “Social situation of People with Disabilities in Austria” carried out by the Austrian government (Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection) within the framework of the annual “European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions” (EUSILC) 1 survey, 18 % of all Austrian citizens without a formal recognized disability finish their education after compulsory education (9 years of school). Within the group of people with disabilities, a significantly higher amount of persons (46 %) finish their educational path after compulsory school. The “Matura”, the formal certificate that entitles people in Austria to enter Higher Education (e.g. university or university of applied science) is reached by 30 % of all Austrians without a formally stated disability and by 11 % out of the group of people with disabilities. As information on disability is subject to special data security regulations, this information is not asked when people enrol for Higher Education. There are of course numbers given by disability support structures (installed at most Austrian Higher Education institutions) but it is up to the individual with a disability or chronic illness to get in touch with these structures and “re-appear on the screen”. Therefore, there are no formal surveyed numbers on people with disabilities studying and/or finishing their studies and reaching a career different from “traditional” jobs but numbers given by disability support services throughout Austria that are, again, far smaller than the number within the group of people without a disability. Out of own experiences, this group is further diminishing during their time in Higher Education until successfully entering the first labour market at a position corresponding to personal abilities, knowledge, skills and competences. Many issues are to be sorted out before, during and after Higher Education – issues resulting from specific needs that might arise from a disability or chronic illness, issues connected to a specific study scheme, connected to Assistive Technologies (AT) and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in use… but first and foremost issues that should be part of a most flexible, interactive and reliable support framework in order to create possibilities and facilitate pathways.
State of the Art and Necessary Steps Beyond seen from Austrian perspective
In 1991, the institute Integriert Studieren at Linz University was founded as “Endeavour Informatics for the Blind” and first formal Austrian offer for students with disabilities, following experiences and expertise of a similar scheme at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology1. The 2 students supported worked already with Braille Displays and PCs (MS DOS™) and were supplied with study literature in accessible formats.
In these first years, blind and partially sighted people from all over Austria came (or, more precise, ‘had to come’) to Linz and wanted to study computer science – even if this field of study was not the best one for them. Today, the institute works as function unit in supporting the university board in various issues connected to “disability” at Linz University.
To get an overview, the following table shows the distribution of disability forms on the institute’s student population. There are 3 people out of these 60 individuals characterizing their constraints as “multiple disability / combination of different disabilities” where only the most influencing has been counted:
[Tabel 1] Distribution of disability forms amongst the institute’s students population (N=60, where 3 people characterized themselves as affected by a multiple / combined disability where only the most influencing has been counted)
Form of Disability Numbers
Blind / Partially sighted 24
Motor / Manipulation 14
Psychologic constraints 2
Deaf / Hard of Hearing 3
Chronic Illness 2
Speech / Language 1
„Not to be published“ 10
Total 60


Since 1991, as described above, a continuous and ongoing change has taken place, caused by:
  • The rapid progress in ICT / AT facilitating more and more ways of trans
(Panel size 15.000 persons in 6000 households – last lookup in January 2012)
port and representation of knowledge and information, facilitating the inclusion of more and more people with most diverse forms and combinations of disabilities into secondary education that led to
  • “New” forms of disabilities entering University. Connected to this,
  • The numbers of people with disabilities entering University rose and of course that led to
  • Additional fields of Study and universities our students with disabilities are interested in, resulting in
  • Changes in:
– Work and workflows
– Services provided
– Tasks fulfilled and
– Funding needed
This paper will discuss the changes faced in supporting students with disabilities at Linz University and the methodology used compared to other support schemes around Europe presented within the EU wide “Higher Education Accessibility Guide” (HEAG) installed by the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education2. As the (online) survey amongst 100 support structures from Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estland, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden and UK that we designed to collect further information is running in the moment, first results will be available for the final paper and stable results for a possible presentation in July. First feedback from 20 institutions (from Austria, Czech Republic, Sweden and Germany) shows that the institute’s working group “social inclusion” and its service offer follows a quite different approach, therefore it will be described on the following pages in more depth.
Methodologies Used to Comply with the Changes Faced in Daily Work
As described above, the most influencing changes resulted in necessary adaptations in the following areas:
  • Work and workflows
  • Services provided
  • Tasks fulfilled and
  • Funding needed (primarily for personal assistance, e.g. sign language in terpretation)


2 (last lookup in January 2012)

New technical / technological developments helped in solving some of the issues, other requirements had to be tackled by changes and adaptations in the basic organisational structure of the support scheme or adjustments in the provision with accessible study materials / study literature had to be evolved from 1:1 or face to face personal assistant settings to a user-centred, self administrating and transferable (i.e. independent from University, field of study, disability form and

number of students supported), highly available web based toolset, an experience also reported by some of the answering institutions from our survey.
The core idea in short words is to provide a web based tool / literature database where the students enter the study materials they need. If available, the students may download the adapted materials directly, otherwise a standardized workflow is triggered. This workflow reaches from putting a query to publishers in order to get the texts needed in digital formats over the adaptation process until the provision of the ready materials – based on “open document” files – easily convertible to diverse formats: “simple .doc / .html” over .xhtml to .mp3 and finally also Daisy versions.

R&D Work and Results

Within the first years of supporting blind and partially sighted students at Linz University, the provision with study materials / study literature and accessible working environments were at focus. With the rising number of (prospective) students there was a need to expand and transfer the service scheme to other supportive structures, universities, forms of disabilities and fields of study. Simultaneously, the administrative effort and the support expenses (in terms of time) for this process had to be reduced but in the same time tailored to the individual needs and nevertheless made efficient, manageable and affordable.

Another issue was the experience that the dropout rate of students with disabilities was – even with the best adapted study materials and technical / technological framework – reasonably higher than in the “mainstream population”. Evaluations showed that – in most cases – there was a lack of:
  • Social skills

- Necessary to build up personal relationships and communicate own needs resulting from the disability and getting part of / build up supportive peer groups that are crucial in order to succeed at University, as “lone fighters” are always at the risk of failure caused by the far higher effort in studying and getting further

  • Communicative skills

- Strongly connected to the social skills needed for studying ef––fectively – but in most cases not learned during (even integrative) first / secondary education

  • Sound knowledge of studying at university level, planned fields of • study and necessary ICT / AT skills

- It is necessary to get in touch with prospective students as early ––as possible in order to counsel them in using ICT / AT efficiently and work with them on finding and choosing a study field corresponding to their skills, competences and interests. that finally, amongst other issues (health related, related to financial issues or other influencing factors), led to the observed reasonably higher dropout rate.

Therefore, an additional service, the working group “social inclusion” was installed, responsible for supporting the students in this additional issues as well as doing research on the topic.

The following scheme was developed in order to complement the already implemented institute’s technical / technological support:


[Fig. 1] Support pyramid for students with disabilities at Linz University showing that most support is needed when starting
This model acts already before the formal start at university by contributing to activities like the “International Camp on Communication and Computers”3 and provides interested people with information and strategies on the efficient use of ICT / AT as well as informing them on studying and possible support structures available. Before starting at university, there is also an orientation phase where the prospective students get to know the university, the campus, the people involved in supporting them and the support offers in terms of what the institute does and what is left to the individual.
3 ICC, International Camp on Communication and Computers: (looked up in January 2012)
During their studies, a variety of offers (besides the “traditional” provision of accessible study materials) is provided, ranging from incoming/outgoing evaluation, monthly team / students meetings, development dialogues, (inclusive) social events like cooking together, over organised excursions and events to specific trainings like “Body language, mimics and gestures / communicating disability”, “assessment centre training”, “presentation skills” and individualised mobility training. Another important part of our activities concentrates on the provision of possibilities to test oneself within scientific / professional settings (projects and internships in connection to projects carried out at the institute or with partnering institutions like employment services), that often already opens important doors to a later professional entry. Before leaving University, the activities concentrate on the successful career entry and a smooth transition into the labour market. Co-operation with firms, partners and employment services gives the necessary basis. This two activities seem – following first feedback from our survey amongst study support structures in Europe – to be the most promising approach and will be at scope in the final version of this paper and the presentation in July.
Following this scheme, informal experience shows that the risk of dropping out can be reduced to personal factors (health related issues, financial issues,...), what has to be evaluated and monitored formally during the next years as the first students that entered this new scheme is now preparing to finish their studies.
Impact on or Contributions to the Field
In designing the support structure as flexible, expandable and transferable as possible, the impact on the quality of support provided at university level can be estimated as high. Together with keeping the administrative scheme as efficient, user centred and accessible as possible, more time and resources can be put in necessary activities in the field of social inclusion what leads to a smaller dropout rate and a complete package of support provided.
Conclusion and Planned Activities
The scheme of service provision for students with disabilities and chronic illness at Linz university is rather open, flexible and expandable to different needs, disabilities, AT and ICT used and fields of study. This leads to a higher number of students that can be served and therefore get the possibility to study and choose an educational path and a career corresponding to their personal skills, competences and interests.
During the next year(s), new activities like preparatory language courses for deaf students in order to enable them to write essays, mentoring or peer group counselling / learning support groups (“Tandem Learning”) have to be implemented and the scheme has to be evaluated and benchmarked with other support structures (partially concentrating on a single form of disability or just dealing with the provision of accessible study literature / accessible study materials) in terms of resources needed, “output” of students, contentment of students and university partners involved.

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