ACCESS4ALL: Through the Eyes of a Student Counselor: Accessibility and Equality in Higher Education

Teija Palonen works as a student counselor for higher education students at the University of Jyväskylä. According to her, the IT faculty is currently able to correspond to the needs of individual students quite well and in a flexible manner, e.g. in the form of extended exam times. Increasing knowledge about topics related to accessibility makes it easier to react to different situations and facilitates the dialogue between teaching staff and students.

The University of Jyväskylä attempts to ensure accessibility and equality for the applicants already in the entrance exam phase. An applicant may apply for individual arrangements to complete the entrance exam, which allows the exam situation to be adapted to the individual needs of the applicant. According to Teija Palonen, the needs of students are taken into account during their studies as well, and the university can react quite quickly to different situations. Perhaps the most common practices within the IT faculty relate to exam situations, and it is possible e.g. to grant more time to finish the exam or use a computer instead of using pen and paper. In addition, extra lighting or a more peaceful space can be provided. However, Palonen points out that the faculties and subjects within the university are different and thus, it is likely that the practices and the most common arrangements differ between faculties as well.

In the IT faculty, accessibility and equality are taken into account in course design e.g. by providing alternative ways to complete the course. According to Palonen, the practices for completing the course are also flexible when necessary. Because of this, it is important that the student keeps the staff up-to-date about her or his studying needs. When the demands for student arrangements are known, it is also easier to meet these needs. It is good to keep in mind, that adapting course completion practices to fit a certain situation is about increasing equality, not about making the course easier. The goal of individual arrangements is to provide all students equal possibilities to show their competence in the subject they are studying.

According to Teija Palonen, accessibility and equality have been made more and more visible to students over the years, and she believes that this is e.g. due to the expansion of the Goodie activity. The Goodie activity has also become an established part of the university functions. Goodies offer a low-threshold path for students to bring forth information regarding their individual needs. Similarly, the staff appreciates the accessibility planning expertise that is found within the organization, because this increases their trust towards the fluency of accessibility processes. According to Palonen, the awareness of the possibility to make individual arrangements has increased over the years. The establishment of practices, in turn, has assured that different parties view inclusive thinking in positive way.

Palonen points out that the studying ability of higher education students is usually good. Dyslexia, for example, might not be problematic to a student until the end of bachelor’s studies, when it is time to perform the maturity exam. However, it becomes harder to meet the needs of an individual when problems start to accumulate. In these situations, it is important to consider the role of university in supporting the students, and similarly what kind of support the student needs to be able to cope with everyday life.  Thus, when the studying ability is strong, it is quite effortless to find solutions. Once the studying ability decreases, solving accessibility problems might not be enough to ensure the continuity of studies. The needs of students might have great variance when life situations change and thus, it is important to be able to inspect the student’s situation in a more comprehensive way instead of trying to find solutions to different problems. Palonen points out that not all challenges faced by students are permanent, which emphasizes the significance of timely support.

According to Teija Palonen, accessibility and equality can be best improved in the University of Jyväskylä by increasing the awareness of both the students and the staff. This is also one of the Access4All project’s goals, since adopting inclusive thinking enables the formation of established accessibility and equality promoting practices within an organization. The adoption of inclusive thinking can be supported e.g. with the Pyramid Inclusion Model produced by the A4A project.

Access4All project website: http://www.access4allproject.eu/

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