Could Stephen Hawking have studied in Germany?

The German National Association for Student Affairs (DSW) has published a survey on the situation of students with disabilities and chronic diseases, which finds that this group is confronted with a wide range of impediments at university.

Inclusive universities with equal and non-discriminatory access to higher education and lifelong learning for people with disabilities, it goes without saying, should really be a no-brainer in Germany by now.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the signatories of which committed themselves to observing the human right to inclusive and non-discriminatory education and creating an inclusive education system, entered into force in this country in 2009. And that same year, the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz, representing German university leaders, developed its ‘Higher Education for All’ recommendation as a guideline for institutions.

But what has really been achieved so far? The DSW, the association of student services organisations in Germany, took stock of developments in 2011, and has now once again interviewed students with disabilities and chronic illnesses about their situation at university.

More than one in 10 students in Germany has a health impediment, although this is only immediately perceivable among 4% of all students. In other words, the impediments of 96% of the students interviewed are initially unnoticeable. And 44% of these students want things to stay that way because they are afraid of being rejected, stigmatised and disadvantaged.

Students are affected by a wide range of impediments. The largest group are those suffering from mental illnesses. Fifty-three per cent of the students interviewed in the recent DSW survey belong to this group, which is eight percentage points more than in 2011. Twenty per cent have chronic somatic illnesses such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis or rheumatism, while 10% are affected by sensual or movement impairments and 4% have a partial disability such as dyslexia or dyscalculia.

The CRPD has prompted German universities and student services organisations to step up their counselling efforts, eliminate structural barriers and draw up action plans to implement its objectives. In addition, the student services organisations have created more housing with disability access, and are continuing to do so.

The survey has also revealed that while students are now more aware of the counselling services universities offer, they often fail to make use of them in time. First-year students in particular demand significantly more support and information. Assistance provided by family members and friends as well as physicians and therapists is of particular importance for success in studying. One in three interviewees referred to being supported by fellow students.

Nevertheless, nine out of 10 of the students in the survey stated that they had difficulty organising and carrying out their studies, and above all faced challenges with test frequency, attendance and schedules. They demanded more time and more flexible regulations for exams. Also, two-thirds of the students said their impediments caused additional costs, while one is six students complained of difficulty making ends meet.

Compensation for disadvantages

To create equal conditions for students with and without disabilities or chronic illnesses, for example in tests, they are offered appropriate compensation for disadvantages. For example, they are allowed more time for tests or can write them in small rooms together with only a small number of other students. In the survey, 73% of the students said these arrangements were very helpful.

However, compensation for disadvantages does not appear to be working well everywhere, one of the reasons for this being that students and those seeking to study are insufficiently informed about such measures. Also, a number of lecturers still believe that such compensation amounts to creating undue advantages.

Student Frieder Kurbjeweit from Bremen believes that compensation for disadvantages will not pave the way to inclusive universities. “What is needed is a fundamentally different mindset,” says Kurbjeweit, who himself has difficulty walking.

Barbara Welzel, pro-rector for diversity management at the Technical University of Dortmund, also sees a need for substantial change, especially where university management is concerned. “It is up to university management to strengthen structures, and counselling centres and self-help groups must have the feeling that they have really been commissioned by management to carry out their work,” Welzel maintains.

Much remains to be done

The student survey, beeinträchtigt studieren – best2, in which 21,000 students at 153 universities participated, shows that while a positive trend has developed and some measures are taking effect, a wide range of obstacles to equality in studying still exist in Germany. Efforts by university lecturers, administrative staff and the student services organisations have so far fallen short of requirements.

Much remains to be done, particularly in terms of education and information. Germany’s inclusive higher education system is still a long way off from enabling someone like Stephen Hawking to be able to study at a German university.