The intrinsic value of education for human and social progress has been well researched and discussed. Since access to high paid professions and an opportunity to have a wide circle of positive social relationships is often a privilege exclusive to the non-disabled world, education is vital for disabled people if disabled people are to lead independent lives. If disabled people are able to participate effectively in education they are more able to attain better employment prospects and have the opportunity to network, socialise and make lifelong friendships.
That said, for most disabled people often accessing mainstream educational settings is in the first place problematic, and taking an active part in the system presents even more obstacles. The current mainstream education system is based on the medical model of disability and expects disabled students to fit into an inflexible structure instead of modifying the existing teaching processes and the general university culture to accommodate all. Most universities justify their efforts towards inclusion by providing additional support to individual disabled students which is both reactive and individualistic.
As a disabled international student I studied at British universities for over a decade completing an undergraduate, taught postgraduate degree and a PhD research. During my university life I encountered numerous barriers ranging from inaccessible reading materials to a lack of specialised computers with screen-reading software in the postgraduate office. I was also unable to have adequate personal assistant (PA) support hours due to the limited funding available to me as an international student. I strongly feel my identity of being an ‘international’ student added to the complications I was experiencing as a ‘disabled’ student. For example, most disabled domestic students’ needs are assessed in detail prior to starting a course, so by the time they start their studies the necessary support services are put in place to assist with their transition period and the cost for the relevant services is usually covered by disabled students allowance (DSA). Being an international student I missed out on a comprehensive needs assessment process and was not able to access DSA, which is open only to domestic students. My double identity impacted on both my academic and social life and sometimes made me feel even more isolated. The difficulties experienced by one identity were at times intensified because of the presence of problems related to my other identity, and at other times new obstacles were created. Throughout my time as a university student my experience was shaped by a combination of being ‘disabled’ and ‘international’.
Based on this firsthand experience I have become a passionate advocate of inclusive education and to date I continue researching, campaigning, lecturing and delivering workshops on the topic. Inclusive education as an alternative system to current mainstream education is more in tune with the social model of disability, considering the sector as the problem and not the individual student. Universities and the education providers are expected to make such changes as modifying the curriculum and the way it is taught to make it relevant to all students. For example by adopting a range of creative and flexible teaching methods and assessment procedures in accessible buildings with appropriate equipment, attempts can be made to include all students in the curriculum and teaching process in the academic setting. It is through such inclusive education practices and the respect for the rights and dignity of all that change can effectively take place. The necessary changes in the current education system will empower all learners, regardless of disability, nationality or any other characteristic.
Dr Armineh Soorenian