At the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (National Distance Education University), best known as UNED, in Spain, a service to support students with disabilities started in response to growing numbers of students with special needs. In Spain, people with disabilities have higher rates of poverty and lower levels of educational achievement and employment than other sectors of the population. Distance Education often provides the best educational option for these students.
UNED was responding to the needs of students with disabilities on a one-by-one basis but, as numbers grew, a more formal structure and specialized staff were required and so UNIDIS (UNI indicating service unit and DIS for disabled) was established. There are now almost 8,000 students with disabilities at UNED, with over 1,000 needing help to participate in learning. To be classified as ‘disabled’, students must produce an official certificate of diagnosis.
The mandate of UNIDIS has recently been expanded to include services to all members of the university community – faculty, staff, administrators, tutors, and students and a new name indicates this wider responsibility - Center for Attention to University People with Disabilities (Centro de Atención a Universitarios con Discapacidad). Students are still the major focus of the service, as their population and needs change with each new academic year.
The services developed by UNIDIS support access, communication, and success, with special attention to countering high level of dropouts among disabled students. Among general services provided to support learning are:
- Free tuition: Students classified as disabled receive free tuition – this is a legal requirement of the Spanish government.
- Information and guidance: Help students adjust to distance education and tools, resources and supports offered by UNIDIS.
- Accessibility aids: Access to learning tools and resources, such as books, videos and learning platforms, enhanced and specialized through such strategies as subtitling, e-books, print size options, and streamed readers.
- Communication: Communication with teaching staff and other students offered through print and voice.
- Assessment Adaptation: The assessment process is modified to respond to individual students through the identification of student capabilities and subsequent adaption of assessment tools.
Tiberio Feliz Murias, Director of UNIDIS, stresses the importance of working with students as individuals to understand their specific needs and capacities, and then offering services that work for them and their teachers. UNIDIS has a book describing the wide range of strategies which can be implemented to respond to individual needs.
Among essential adaptations are:
- Supports for exams, written at the university or in centres, which can be adapted with larger print; screen readers; and sign interpreters who sign the questions, record answers and submit to teachers.
- For students with psycho-motor challenges, a teacher or student can record their answers or do their manual lab work under their direction.
- Some students may need additional time to complete an exam, as well as direct stimulation and facilitation for them to organize their ideas and begin answering the questions.
In the experience of Tiberio Feliz Murias, there is never an automatic solution and teachers must be part of determining the appropriate strategy. The process at UNED incorporates this cooperative approach:
- The student registers, providing documents describing disability;
- UNIDIS receives an e-mail informing them about the student;
- UNIDIS contacts the student and discusses the disability, needs, solutions offered in earlier schooling, and other questions.
- UNIDIS analyzes the subjects in which the student registered to determine related needs;
- The type of adaptation or support necessary is determined;
- Discussions are held with the teachers concerning the adaptations (additional exam time, streamed learning resources, etc.). The agreement of the teacher is essential, sometimes necessitating negotiation between the teacher and the student; and
- Tools and resources are acquired and the adaptations for each course are registered online so teachers can see specific responses for their courses.
Outcomes and Benefits
Students benefit from support, information, guidance and the particular technological and software tools they receive.
As a central service, UNIDIS brings together the necessary expertise, eliminating the need for each department to offer similar services. They also work with other essential partners, such as the library.
The approach is always to provide technology and solutions for an individual – not for a disability.
Challenges and Enhancements
The main challenge is to motivate and empower potential students with disabilities to believe they can succeed at university. This motivation and positive attitude has to encompass families and society as a whole to be successful.
Many more resources need to be adapted as standard practice rather than by special request, so they are available on demand, applying the principles of “universal accessibility”. As expressed by Tiberio Feliz Murias; “If we had much more means, we could have better, more flexible, and open strategies so we could better adapt to peoples’ needs, preferences, abilities, and expectations.”
Universal Accessibility will become more linked with online learning, offering digital and virtual teaching and learning, resources, support, communication, and administration.
As online learning becomes widely available, methods and means will be modified to be more innovative, flexible, and inclusive for all learners. This inclusion will not focus on disabilities, but provide supports to a much broader diversity, addressing economic, cultural, geographic, and gender differences.
For Further Information
Tiberio Feliz Murias
Center for Attention to University People with Disabilities
National Distance Education University (UNED)