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Commission policy paper urges better deal for disabled students

A European Commission policy paper has encouraged European Union member states to work harder at helping disabled students to gain university places and good degrees, with data showing that their life chances improve considerably with higher education.

The report, Education and Disability/Special Needs – Policies and practices in education, training and employment for students with disabilities and special educational needs in the EU, was compiled by a France-based network of experts in the social sciences of education and training, NESSE.

It emphasised UK data that 75% of disabled adult men with degrees were in work, while 38% of those without any qualifications were employed and 62% of qualified school-leavers had jobs. By contrast, the figures for able-bodied adult males were 93%, 85% and 91% respectively.

The report concluded that “disabled people with low or no qualifications are less likely to be in employment than disabled people with higher level qualifications…[and] disabled people with low or no qualifications are also disadvantaged compared with non-disabled people with low or no qualifications”.

As a result, the paper says the European Commission should encourage EU countries to be more proactive in ensuring disabled people succeed in higher education and “receive the necessary support to gain educational qualifications, since this is likely to improve their labour market position”.

Its authors said the same proportion of disabled people (without serious mental problems) as able-bodied people should be in EU higher education, and called on governments to monitor the situation statistically.

The authors said evidence showed that “disabled people are less likely to progress into higher education than non-disabled people”, although datasets are far from robust.

Again, quoting UK data, the report said 30% of able-bodied adult women were either undergraduates, graduates or postgraduates; while for officially registered disabled people (of all disabilities) the figure was around 27%; and for those also with a work-limiting disability it was 16%.

Speaking to University World News Karina Ufert, chair of the European Students’ Union (ESU), said: “The report once again proves that Europe's educational systems are by far not accessible enough for disabled students.

“Limited access to education puts this group under heavy risk of poverty and social exclusion from society, as it is very difficult for them to compete with people without special needs, especially in the current economic situation.”

She added: “Countries should develop specific plans to widen access to education for disadvantaged groups and monitor the actual implementation of those policies.”

Ufert said that while the accessibility of university facilities for the disabled was improving across Europe, “there is still a big mental shift that needs to take place in the minds of all those that work in education”.

Education systems should become more responsive to learners’ needs, with governments encouraging flexible teaching methods; for instance, allowing additional time to complete courses.

The commission has relatively weak powers over education and cannot force action or table binding legislation – but it does – said a communiqué on the report from the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, which advises on how to boost disabled access at universities.

Later this year, the commission will also publish best practices in this area, in a working document on equity in education and training.

A commission education spokesperson, Dennis Abbott, said disabled students could benefit from the new Erasmus for All programme, which will allocate €19 billion (US$23 billion) for education, training, youth and sport in 2014-20 – a 70% increase compared to the present seven-year budget.

EU Education Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou added: “We have to strengthen our efforts to provide adequately financed inclusive education policies if we want to improve the lives of children with special educational needs and disabled adults.”

A European University Association spokesperson said that from its perspective, “the topic of the report is an extremely important issue in the context of improving access and lifelong learning provision for all learners”.
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