Thinking about students with disabilities in the pandemic

Ayse sounded very happy on the phone. “Now my friends are getting online education like me! Now I’m also a class member...” Ayse had a genetic disorder called epidermolysis bullosa, a rare and serious skin disorder. Getting the right environment for her to do a two-year computer programming course was a challenge.

The director of her vocational school and the rector of the university had to work on bureaucratic issues to solve the addition of an online individual to a formal class. Once she was the only one to get distance or hybrid education in her class. Now at a time of pandemic, everybody has been in the same position. And she’s happy, perhaps because she is at an advantage having had experience before and also because the stigma of being the only one learning in this way doesn’t exist any more…

On World Disability Day or International Day of Persons with Disabilities, an international awareness day celebrated in December, the World Health Organization emphasised the importance of promoting an accessible and sustainable culture and responding to the urgent needs of people with disabilities, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, under the slogan “a day for all”.

Under the ‘accessible education’ banner, many studies have been carried out by the Council of Higher Education of Turkey (YÖK) to raise awareness about accessibility on college campuses and to encourage higher education institutions to provide more educational and social opportunities to disabled students.

Several years ago, the president of YÖK, Professor Yekta Sarac, launched a new initiative entitled ‘Barrier-Free University Awards’ in an attempt to promote more accessible university cultures across the country. As part of this initiative, all universities that satisfy the criteria set by YÖK are rewarded with ‘flags’ showing that they are accessible for disabled students in many respects.

In order to receive an award, universities are evaluated based on hundreds of criteria in terms of physical space, educational opportunities and socio-cultural activities. The ‘Orange Flag’, for instance, indicates easy access in physical spaces and the ‘Green Flag’ and ‘Blue Flag’ indicate accessibility in educational and socio-cultural activities.

The initiative attracted much more attention than expected and a large number of universities quickly established commissions to receive these awards. For example, to receive the Orange Flag, which signifies the accessibility of physical spaces on campus, universities are required to meet over 200 criteria.

Although this is a long-term commitment (preparations for receiving the flag often take a whole year), many universities across the nation are moving rapidly towards accessibility.

In 2018 YÖK received 318 applications from 41 universities. The applications have consistently increased as the years have passed: there were 653 applications from 81 universities in 2019 and 841 applications from 116 universities in 2020.

Even though not all of these applications resulted in successful awards, the application process itself has contributed to building a culture of accessibility in Turkey as dozens of universities have sought to construct a barrier-free ecosystem for disabled students.

Disability barriers during COVID

Most applications for the Barrier-Free University Awards concern physical accessibility. Unfortunately, applications for other ‘flags’ awarding accessibility in education and socio-cultural activities are smaller in number, primarily because most academic programmes have not been designed with accessibility in mind.

For example, making a graphic design programme accessible to an autistic individual and to a deaf individual requires drastic changes. During the pandemic period, these kinds of accessibility problems in education have come to light more than physical barriers. Although YÖK routinely advises universities to take the necessary measures to accommodate students with all kinds of disabilities, many programmes have been caught off guard.

Over this period, YÖK’s Disabled Students Commission prepared a comprehensive questionnaire to be filled out by universities across the nation. The questionnaire primarily focused on the quality of education disabled students are receiving during the ongoing pandemic.

Called “The Questionnaire Regarding the Measures Taken by Higher Education Institutions for the Access of Students with Disabilities to Education During the Ongoing Pandemic”, the survey was sent to 201 higher education institutions and was answered by 195.

According to the data obtained by YÖK, there are 51,647 students with disabilities studying in Turkish higher education institutions. However, the number of disabled students in the 195 participating higher education institutions was 48,159, and the survey results were given based on this number.

Among all disabled students mentioned in the survey, 43,614 (91%) are enrolled in social sciences programmes, 1,957 (4%) in engineering and science, 904 (2%) in medicine and health sciences and 564 (1%) in fine arts programmes.

When YÖK evaluated the conditions of disabled students in distance education during the pandemic, it asked universities offering distance education whether disabled students had internet access and the necessary technical equipment. Only 59% of universities provided additional documentation and training tools like documents prepared in Braille, whereas others stated that they didn’t need these additional documents but offered other technical support.

The results showed that 88% of higher education institutions actively sought to support students with disabilities through their Disabled Student Units and Distance Education Offices. Furthermore, 53% of universities held additional online meetings with disabled students to inform them about distance education practices.

While 74% of universities stated that they had informed their lecturers about the accessibility concerns of disabled students, 83% of them also indicated that efforts were made to compensate disabled students for the disrupted teaching activities they faced during the distance education process.

While 39% of universities that answered the questionnaire had focused on improving the digital literacy of their disabled students, 82% also provided external access to their libraries. Within the scope of distance education, 89% of the higher education institutions had video and audio guides on how to navigate applications and distance learning, 94% had explanations in written and some in sign language and 19% also provided subtitles.

Interestingly, 91% wanted their distance education practices to continue as an additional tool in the post-pandemic face-to-face education period for disabled students.

As a part of this survey, YÖK also evaluated the regulations regarding psychosocial support provided to disabled students who participate in distance education. Fifty-nine per cent of universities that answered the questionnaire assessed their educational and psychosocial support systems, with 50% stating that they hold supportive online interviews and workshops to alleviate the stress and anxiety experienced by disabled students.

During the pandemic, some higher education institutions also worked with individual students to determine their specific needs and to help them adapt to distance learning. Some universities also prepared official guidelines on supporting students with disabilities and enacted peer-support programmes in which non-disabled volunteers provided peer support to disabled students during the distance education process.


To remove the barriers in access to higher education, universities must embrace a pro-active and needs-based action plan: each department and each degree programme should draft its own specific regulations based on the needs and the particular types of disabilities its students have.

Raising awareness of the barriers is essential. It is important that a similar survey study is conducted by higher education institutions of the disabled students themselves so that universities can see their own shortcomings and evaluate the results of actions taken to improve the situation.

From admissions processes onwards, legislative regulations are needed to support disabled students to access higher education.

In Turkey there are regulations for disabled students in the University Entrance Exams (YKS): special material help is given to those with physical disabilities. Depending on their needs, an assistant can help individuals with visual impairment; assistants are also provided for those with autism or with mental illnesses, who are also given the chance to sit the exam in a room on their own so they can feel more comfortable.

Other support includes the provision of large print question booklets or additional time allowed for exams, depending on the disability. But these alone are not enough to overcome the obstacles disabled students face. Academic support and help with accessing courses, campuses and materials are needed at all levels.

Student counselling services for disabled students are important during the pandemic. But they need data. Creating a more accessible distance education service requires reliable and comprehensive information about disabled students.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma and shame about disability, especially for younger people who haven’t yet built their adult identity. Their reluctance to be identified as disabled can be an obstacle to the support they might need. Especially for those with unseen disabilities, the establishment of a systematic database can be a challenge.

More support is needed for those students with particular disabilities during the pandemic. Private online contacts and peer education can be helpful. Universities in Turkey could prepare accessible distance education during the pandemic:

For deaf students, providing course content in text format, using subtitles or sign language translators during online lectures is useful; for blind students, descriptions of slides and providing reader compatible supportive documents, using rich text formats and large fonts, contrasting colours in presentations, describing graphics and tables during lectures are all possibilities; for those with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses and on the autism spectrum disorder, regular contact with the family and the student is necessary.

Education is a fundamental right for all students, regardless of their physical and mental abilities, and it should not be interrupted during the pandemic. On the positive side, this pandemic has led to the emergence of some new practices in face-to-face education as well as online accessibility in education.

Thus, one must remain hopeful: higher education might possibly be more accessible to disabled students in the near future thanks to the new technologies, methodologies and practices developed during this global pandemic.

Professor Zeliha Kocak Tufan, MD, is an executive board member of the Council of Higher Education (YÖK), Turkey, and director of the Disabled Students Commission of YÖK.