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"It must not just be a declaration to put in a frame and hang on the wall"

"It must not just be a declaration to put in a frame and hang on the wall"


Ann H via Pexels

Declaration on the rights of persons with a disability

Going to university, reading a paper, going to a lecture or tutorial group meeting or just walking up the stairs: it is not matter-of-course for everyone. About two thousand students at Maastricht University have a functional disability that hinders them in their studies. Last month, rector Rianne Letschert signed a declaration of intent by the United Nations on the rights of persons with a disability on behalf of the UM. With this signature, the university wants to show how important it feels those rights are, in particular the right to education.

“Equal opportunities, accessibility and fulfilling participation. That is what it is about,” says Sigrid Péters, Disability Officer at UM. Students with a functional disability can call on the centre for support. “In most cases, this concerns dyslexia,” says Péters. “In that case, we arrange extra exam time, sometimes in a separate room, and we may provide a programme that reads the questions out loud.” For people in a wheelchair, we check what is needed at their faculty. “Accessibility is often tricky in the old UM buildings, but we always ensure that education is available for them.” Still, this is a difficult issue, Péters explains. “Disabled people usually don’t want a special entrance to the side or back of the building. It makes them different; they want to enter at the front like equals.” Péters thinks that the rector’s signature shows that persons with a functional disability at the UM must be able to participate fully. This, in turn, generates more attention for the subject. “In the best scenario, attention would always be on it. Then with every decision or policy adaptation persons with a disability would be taken into consideration. We are striving toward that.”

This was not achieved when the COVID-19 regulations for the university were drawn up, says Kristie Stoelers, master’s student of Mental Health. She was born eleven weeks early and suffered two infections, as a result of which her brain is unable to fully control her legs. “The walking routes in the buildings are based on the use of staircases. Taking the stairs is difficult for me, sometimes I have to go against the flow in order to reach a lift. Asking someone for their arm to help me get down the stairs is not such a good idea either these days.”
Stoelers: “People don’t realise what it means to have a functional disability. Things that are normal for most people, are just that bit different for me.” Because of my “trouble with fine motor skills” writing can also take more effort than normal. That is why she is given extra time during exams. But even getting to the university takes longer. “I can’t cycle, so I always use public transport. If I have a class at 9:00 hrs and the train from Maastricht to Randwyck arrives at 8:58 hrs, I have to take the train half an hour earlier. By bicycle it would take fifteen minutes.”
Stoelers is glad with the rector’s signature. The attention is important. She knows through experience that a lot has improved over the last few years. Alongside her study, she works for the UM’s Disability Support centre. “You see more and more persons with a disability becoming bold enough to approach us when they need support. Signing the declaration could give those who are not quite so bold yet the extra bit of encouragement.” In addition, Stoelers thinks that it is also an incentive for the university. “It must not just be a declaration to put in a frame and hang on the wall.”

For Sjoerd Maillé, second-year student of Dutch law, studying is just that bit different too. He has Stargardt’s disease and because of that, his vision is about 5 per cent. He gets double time for his exams and uses a speech function. In addition, it is also important that the exams are issued in Word format, PDFs often don’t work with the text-to-speech function. During tutorials, he uses his laptop with a braille keyboard extension and he wears a listening device. “Everything is arranged really well for me, but I have a rather obvious disability. That help in combination with a positive attitude from my side enables me to perform on (at least) the same level as my fellow students.”
Maillé is also happy that the rector signed the declaration of intent. It increases awareness and that is what it is all about, Maillé emphasises. “For students and lecturers, but it is also a message for the business community. To let them know that we want to fully participate and that we can.”
Role models are important, says Maillé. The blind teacher of Constitutional and Administrative Law Esther Crombag is such a role model for him. “I had lessons from her in the first seven weeks. A nice start of university. She talks a lot, instead of using long powerpoint presentations. That was really nice for me. She is very accessible. She gave me her telephone number in case I had any questions.”



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