What does it take to improve life for students with a functional impairment?

Kristel de Groot

It may not always be visible on the outside, but one in ten students is dealing with some kind of functional impairment. They may suffer from spasms when taking notes, run the risk of having an anxiety attack when entering a room full of strangers, or have difficulty planning their work because of the unpredictable nature of their migraines. PhD student Kristel de Groot, herself diagnosed with autism and epilepsy, is one of these students. In order to help others with functional impairments flourish in higher education, she researches how universities can better facilitate their needs. As part of her research, all incoming students of Erasmus University have received a questionnaire by email.

“I was diagnosed with autism in primary school, which is quite early for a girl. Autism usually manifests itself differently in women than in men, and girls are often not correctly diagnosed until they are older. Despite being diagnosed at a young age, I did not always receive proper guidance at school. In fact, many teachers had low expectations of me, and I often heard them say ‘Kristel cannot do this, Kristel cannot do that,’ when actually I thought I could. I enjoyed learning, but was told I should go to a vocational type of secondary school. I guess it was partly out of revenge that I wanted to prove them wrong. I got high grades, and transferred to pre-university level.” These days, she’s doing two PhDs: one in Economics, and one in Psychology.

Never Discourage

‘Never Discourage Students’ is tip number 8 on the soon-to-be-published pamphlet that Kristel wrote to help universities create a better environment for students with functional impairments. “In a pilot study we recently finished, I heard a lot of stories that shocked me. One came from a student with dyslexia. Several teachers advised her not to follow her dream of studying journalism, despite her good grades in the Dutch language, because ‘being able to properly read and write seems essential for a journalist.’ She overcame these discouraging comments, worked hard, and became an outstanding radio journalist.”

It’s a shame, Kristel realises: people think in limitations. Not only when it comes to judging the abilities of people with functional impairments, but also when it comes to creating facilities that could make certain things easier for them. Although some facilities are hard to set up because of high costs (think of soundproofed study cubicles for students who have difficulty filtering out sensory inputs), there are actually many cheap and easy ways for universities to support students with functional impairments. For example, many students are not aware of which facilities their university offers, because such information can be difficult to find. This issue is easily resolved, for instance by providing leaflets with a list of facilities and relevant contact information. “One of my friends only found out in his third year at university that he had been eligible for an adapted study schedule all along. Studying would have been so much easier for him if he had been informed of this sooner.”

The higher the level of education, the lower the level of support

Whereas schools for vocational education usually pay a lot of attention to studying with functional impairments, universities generally do not. Kristel experienced this first-hand during the summer preceding her first year at university. “One of my friends enrolled in a vocational programme. A few weeks before the start of the school year, he attended a special introductory day for students with functional impairments. On this day, he received information about his classes, his timetables, the buildings, the facilities… That’s what I would have wanted! Because the university didn’t offer it, I made my own. I went to campus and walked around for hours, making sure I got to know all the buildings and routes. I also decided to join the Eurekaweek: it was dreadful, completely overloading me with social and sensory input, but I did get to know the city better and met some nice people, so I didn’t feel lost when the year started.”

“It’s odd for people to hear that I can write a scientific paper, but cannot travel abroad on my own. Many of us have our own little tricks to cope with the challenges we encounter, like locking yourself in a toilet stall with your headphones on to get some rest. When I’m in an unfamiliar location, I don’t know where to find such places. The uncertainty of a new location or situation can be debilitating. If I have to go somewhere by public transport, I meticulously investigate all possible travel options at least a day in advance. Still, I’m usually 45 minutes early, considering public transport isn’t always reliable and I can’t stand arriving somewhere at the last minute. I think I might hold the earliness record for being two hours early for a 9 AM exam.

More information

Help improve Erasmus University’s facilities

To help universities improve accessibility for students with functional impairments, Kristel has set up a longitudinal study to see how impairments impact the results and wellbeing of students. All incoming students have received a questionnaire by email. Completing it will help Kristel and her EURIBEB partners (ESE, EMC & ESSB) get a better understanding of the way current facilities are used, and how they can be improved.