UM signs the ‘Declaration of intent UN Convention higher education institutions’

Towards more inclusive education

On 28 September 2020, Rector Magnificus Rianne Letschert signed – on behalf of Maastricht University (UM) - the ‘Declaration of intent of Dutch institutions for higher education’ concerning the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. By signing this declaration, UM indicates that it greatly values creating and maintaining accessible and inclusive education, so that every student feels welcome and appreciated and can develop his or her talent.

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Mai Henckens (text), Philip Driessen (photos)

The signing took place during a modest yet festive gathering, led by Disability Support and the Expertise Center for Inclusive Education (ECIO). ECIO has drawn up the declaration of intent for universities and universities of applied sciences, which contains a joint ambition for inclusive and accessible education and specific objectives. Actively involving students with disabilities, drawing attention to flexibility in the curriculum and improving the expertise of all employees are key pillars in this respect.

UM students with a disability

During the meeting, students with a disability shared experiences and their own practical examples of what it means to study at UM with a disability, thereby emphasizing the importance of accessible education.

”At UM the starting point is equality”

Second year Law student Sjoerd Maillé talked about his rare eye disease that causes worsening eyesight: Stargardt's disease. Reading, for example, is impossible for him. He uses a laptop with text-to-speech software and braille display, a device with which blind and partially sighted people can read digital information on websites.

Sjoerd is pleased with the support at UM: "At my secondary school they did everything they could to help me, but I was still always an exception. At UM the approach is different because there is actually already a plan in place and I notice that I am not the only one with a disability. For example, a reading list was made available to me right away, because I have to order my books very early so that they can be converted. The starting point at UM is that you start as equal students and then you can indicate what you need.”

Sjoerd telling his story

Tip: improving accessibility of UM buildings

Kristie Stoelers, a master's student Mental Health, has celebral palsy. She explains that her brain is damaged and she can’t control her legs properly. Walking and taking stairs is difficult for her and she needs support in the area of accessibility. Because she finds it easy to talk about her disability, people within her study programme responded adequately to her disability: "In my first year I was immediately helped by my mentor, in the educational groups and by a study advisor.” Important facilities for Kristie are elevators that are easy to find, someone supporting her with an arm and extra test time (because of poor motor skills of her hands).

Disability Support

Students with a disability can apply for support and facilities at Disability Support, where Sigrid Péters (Disability Officer) and Judith Kraal (student dean) work. Judith is pleased that with the signing of the declaration of intent, UM endorses the importance of inclusive education. "Approximately 30% of the student population in the Netherlands has a disability. About 10% of the student population experience difficulties during their studies because of their disability. We see an increase every year, but not everyone who is affected by their disability comes forward.”

For example, a survey conducted in March 2020 among UM students with a disability showed that as many as 28% of students who are affected by their disability don’t use any support facilities. The main reasons for this is that they want to try to study without support first or are unfamiliar with the facilities.

What does UM already do?

UM offers support and facilities to make studying with a disability easier. Common disabilities are ADHD and dyslexia. Facilities such as extra test time, the use of larger fonts in tests or smaller exam rooms can make studying with such a disability easier.

Another example is TextAid, a word processing program with a listen function, available to every UM student. Furthermore, a lot of UM buildings have a disabled parking space and in some situations students can get a student buddy.

UM as an inclusive educational environment

Rianne Letschert is proud that UM signed the declaration of intent and thereby endorses the importance of being an inclusive organization for students ánd staff. She invites all students with a disability to help improve our efforts in this area.

Sigrid Péters, UM’s Disability Officer, is also pleased with the declaration of intent: “By signing the declaration, we explicitly state that we want to continue to build an inclusive and accessible educational institution. After all, if education is fundamentally accessible, then there will be less need for support facilities”. This also affects a wider group of students with a support question, such as top-level athletes and caregivers. In fact, you could say that all UM students benefit from an inclusive educational environment.”

COVID-19 measures such as online education have further clarified the need of continuous attention to support students with disabilities: "Digital distance education is not automatically accessible to everyone. Hearing impaired or visually impaired students are particularly affected by this. But also asking someone to support you with their arm is not as easy anymore. By sharing best practices inside and outside UM, we are working towards a fully inclusive educational environment".

“Nothing about us, without us”

Everyone in the room agrees about one thing: the visibility of Disability Support is very important, as is involving students with a disability in further shaping UM as an inclusive university. Students need to know that they are not the only ones looking for support and that they are accepted and listened to. At the end of the meeting, everyone toasted to the words: “Nothing about us, without us”.  

Diversity Day 2020 - You belong at UM!

Diversity Day
From 5 to 9 October it is ‘Accessibility Week’ in the Netherlands. During this week, the UM Diversity & Inclusivity Office also celebrates inclusivity, for example during the Diversity Day on 6 October. Do you want to join? Then sign up before 4 October.

The final toast: "Nothing about us, without us"