Nine per cent of all students have chronic or persistent conditions that limit their education. This could be dyslexia, RSI, chronic fatigue, depression, hearing loss or a physical disability. More than 20 students at TU Delft have come together in a platform for students with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Delta spoke to two of them, Eleana Vallianatos and Lotte van Kerkhoven, about studying with a physical disability in times of crisis.
Adjusting to the crisis
Vallianatos is studying Maritime Engineering and found it especially hard to find a routine in the first few weeks of distance learning. “I have ADHD and when the corona crisis hit I lost my regular routine. I had very little discipline to motivate myself.” It’s now going a lot better. Vallianatos took a tutorial to learn how to structure her time. She also had close contact with two study buddies. “I could exchange experiences with them and learned that I should not be too hard on myself. Above all, I should accept myself and accept that it’s ok to have some delays. This was what helped me the most to stay calm. Luckily TU Delft is being very accommodating in the situation, and this helps reduce stress too.”
Van Kerkhoven (Applied Earth Sciences) needed to get used to it at first, but quickly saw the advantages of studying at home. “I have a visual disability and avoid light. The spaces at TU Delft are not adapted so studying there is uncomfortable. I can regulate the light in my own room so that I can be more relaxed when studying and can work longer. Another point is that at TU Delft I only have the use of a laptop, while at home I have two large screens.”
‘The responsibility rests on the students. They need to take the first step’
Stephanie Meulemans, one of the three student deans at TU Delft, recognises what Vallianatos and Van Kerkhoven say. “Students have a lot to contend with and it’s up to us to support them as best we can. Fortunately, a lot is already being done proactively. For example, we have opened up the study buddy programme to all TU Delft students. We bring students who have difficulty studying in contact with each other in this programme.”
Meulemans says that the academic counsellors are working hard too. In the interest of prevention, they are sending emails containing tips and are calling on students to contact them if remote studying is not working. But therein lies a problem. The responsibility rests with the students. They are the ones who need to take the first step to ask for help. “Few students do this. It’s a barrier that few will take,” says Vallianatos from experience.
This is why both students are involved in the student platform for students with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses. The platform gives students the chance to meet each other and to make studying with a disability more visible.
Van Kerkhoven says that the platform “is not a solution for everything, but I enjoy talking with people who go through the same things as I do.” The platform is holding an open consultation evening on Thursday 4 June. “It will be a safe space with the objective of forming a community. While the statistics show that 9% of the students have a disability, our platform only has 20 members.”
‘I have accepted it that I will take longer to finish my studies’
Even though studying in times of corona takes a lot of their energy, Vallianatos and Van Kerkhoven are not afraid of delays in their studies. “At least not any more,” says Van Kerkhoven. “I was stressed but that was mostly because my last subject was cancelled just before I was to graduate. In the end a solution was found so that I can still finish my bachelor’s, but it took quite a lot of time and it was stressful. I was afraid that I would have to defer by another year.”
Vallianatos went through a similar period. “I stopped my bachelor’s before 1 February in the last academic year. I had just been diagnosed with ADHD and was experiencing a lot of difficulty studying. When I started my Maritime Engineering bachelor this academic year for the second time, I was moving in the right direction towards getting my binding study advice. But then the coronavirus struck. Luckily I could let go easily. I have learned that I don’t absolutely have to finish within five years. I have given myself the space to do extracurricular activities such as working for the platform.” Van Kerkhoven adds that “What also helps is that everyone at TU Delft is accommodating. Teachers are more flexible now which means that more options are open.”
Zooming with a visual disability
To be able to teach online quickly, much use is made of platforms such as Collegerama and programmes such as Zoom. Software that transpires to not be accessible for all students, says Van Kerkhoven. “Normally I enlarge everything on my screen so that I can read it, but if someone shares something on Zoom, the quality is really poor and makes it difficult to read.” Online learning sometimes takes a lot of her energy. Student Dean Meulemans says that “Please be aware that you can discuss this with your academic counsellor and that you can adjust the timing of your degree programme.”
Vallianatos makes the case for deaf and hearing impaired students. “These programmes are impossible for them. In lecture halls, teachers can carry an apparatus that sends sound directly to a hearing aid and some students can lipread what the teacher is saying. But these are no longer options.”
Right to extra time
Apart from making distance learning more inclusive, the students say that online examinations also need to be looked at. Van Kerkhoven says that “Normally I have the right to 50% more time, but now all the questions have to be completed on time and the students have to do them one by one. When the time is up, you move on to the next question. I don’t know if this will work for me.” A better option is to receive a PDF with the questions in advance and only submit all the answers at the end of the exams. “At least, this is how my next exam will be done,” says Van Kerkhoven. “I think it’ll be all right.”
Still, the corona crisis has had a positive side, says Meulemans. “It has given the development of online examinations a huge boost. We will now collect as much feedback as we can so that we can ensure that online examinations will be much easier in the future. Now is the time to introduce structural change.”
- More information about studying with a physical disability is available here. Should you have any concerns about your progress, do not hesitate to contact your study counsellor.
- If you are interested in taking part in one of the open sessions of the student platform, keep an eye on the website or contact Cas van der Lee, trainee Student Welfare Officer.
- Extra support is available for all TU Delft students during the crisis.