Recap of UvA’s Accessibility Symposium

By Alfrida Martis.

Recap of the UvA’s Accessibility Symposium on January 24, 2019

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 Photos by Fatima Kamal.

How can accessibility of the UvA be improved?
In January the UvA organized a very important symposium on accessibility, titled “Heeft iedereen het recht om te studeren aan de UvA?” (Dutch for: “Does everybody have the right to study at the UvA?”. Accessibility not only covers the access of university buildings for students and staff with reduced mobility, but it also refers to learning disabilities, vision and/or hearing impairments, chronic health issues, literacy skills, language comprehension, limitations of time and place, and socioeconomic barriers. All members of the CDO Team attended this symposium, because improving accessibility is also part of our work to foster cultural change and promote equity, inclusiveness and diversity within our academic community. Upon hearing the title of the symposium, most of us would say “yes, of course everybody has the right to study here” but the reality is that the UvA remains an institution where a lot of work still needs to be done in order to improve its accessibility. As long as these accessibility issues are not being tackled in an intersectional way, students and staff members with a disability and/or chronic illness remain excluded even though it’s a fundamental human right to study regardless of one’s ability. I personally believe accessibility needs to be tackled in an intersectional way, looking at the intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, religion and socioeconomic status. This framework by Kimberlé Crenshaw allows us to analyze and understand how various forms of institutional oppression interact, so the possible solutions that we come up with are in line with tackling these issues from the root causes. No neoliberal quick-fix symptoombestrijding but sustainable and equitable solutions that take all the axioms of power into account.

What happened?
Even though the symposium kicked off on an early Thursday morning at 10:00, there were at least 50-60 people in the CREA Theaterzaal when I arrived. The main organizer of the symposium, Mariette de Graaf, who’s a true (behind the scenes) advocate for improving accessibility at the UvA, was unfortunately ill. But I am sure she would have been so proud to see the nice turnout for the symposium. The symposium was divided in a morning (10:00-12:00) and afternoon session (13:00-15:00), followed by a borrel (drinks). The morning session with 5 speakers was definitely better visited. After the lunch break, approximately 30-40 people stayed for the afternoon session (2 workshops and a panel discussion) and the borrel.
The aim of the symposium was to talk about accessibility issues at the UvA and how to develop new policy to help improve accessibility. CDO Anne de Graaf opened the symposium with her welcome word, followed by the very enthusiastic and charming host Fedde Benedictus who gave the stage to the first speaker Calluna Euving (Secretary General of the UvA). Calluna briefly commented on the state of accessibility at the UvA and said that the UvA is currently developing new policy according to the the UN Intentieverklaring that was signed by Executive Board President Geert ten Dam back in November 2018. This means that the UvA is required by international law to adopt a social model, even though currently a medical model is still in place. The latter only allows the UvA to offer help to students after an official diagnosis has been presented, while the former tries to accommodate students in whatever way possible (even those without a diagnosis). The second speaker was Ineke Boerefijn (policy advisor) from the College voor de Rechten van de Mens (The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights). Ineke underlined what Calluna had said before her, namely that we are currently in the process of moving from a medical model to a social model. The reason why the institute and human rights in general dictate that the social model should be used, is that there can’t be a “one size fits all” when it comes to studying with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Intersectionality, agency and autonomy of the student are important here. The environment should always change in order to accommodate the individual with a disability, and not the other way around.

The third speaker was Marlies Klijn (from the UvA department of Communications Sciences). Marlies spoke about implicit biases that people have towards people with disabilities and how that leads to stigmatization in society. Marlies challenged the audience to rethink their associations with disabilities by showing images of a fashion model with disabilities. The fourth speaker was Bert Wienen (psychologist, educational advisor and Windesheim lecturer) who gave a very enthusiastic talk about rethinking disability diagnoses. Bert highlighted that all types of behavior that fall outside of the social norm get labeled as problematic/in need of a diagnosis which is a very dangerous development. In the past few years he has seen that diagnoses for anxiety and depression disorders among students have skyrocketed. Bert said we should always keep in mind that scientists make up categories and diagnoses, therefore we should be rethinking these diagnoses and the far-reaching consequences they have. Labels oftentimes lead to stigmatization and identity issues but they can be empowering for some people as well. The fifth speaker was Suzanne Salari from the Student Disability Platform. She gave a presentation on the platform that she co-founded with two other students (Sophie Visser and Thijs de Lange) to tackle accessibility issues at the UvA. Being a student with a disability herself, she urged the audience to think of disabilities in an intersectional way.
After the lunch break the group was divided into two workshops. The workshop led by Patrick Snellings was on dyslexia and how to define a disability. The other workshop was by Claudia Fluggen and Kim van Gennip on UvA’s responsibilities to cater to students with disabilities. The outcomes of the workshops were debated in the panel discussion. The panel members were: Patrick Snellings, Claudia Fluggen, Marlies Klijn, Thijs de Lange (from the Student Disability Platform) and Bert Wienen. Important lessons to draw from the panel discussion are: the medical model is outdated and in violation of international law, because it only allows institutions to offer help AFTER a diagnosis has been made. In the meantime vulnerable students are basically left to fend for themselves until they can present an official diagnosis. Students with clearly visible disabilities are almost always offered help without doubt, while students with invisible disabilities face extra exclusion because they have to work harder to prove they need help. But without diagnoses and boundaries to define a disability, it’s also tricky for the UvA to establish who really needs help and who doesn’t. Clearly, follow-up talks are needed to discuss how the social model should be implemented at the UvA. The social model offers room for case-by-case help and doesn’t require an official diagnosis, it takes the autonomy and agency of the student as a starting point. Last but not least, Geert ten Dam joined the panel members on stage and made her closing remarks: she was happy to see that so many people are eager to improve accessibility at the UvA. She closed the symposium by saying she acknowledges the UvA is not doing enough yet but that by keeping these conversations going she hopes we can all help the UvA become more accessible.

How to move forward?
The symposium succeeded in opening up a listening space for students, lecturers, study advisors, deans and members of the examinations boards to talk about what it means to study with a disability and how a new policy and a new vision are needed to help tackle accessibility issues at the UvA. The symposium has definitely shown that these important conversations need to be held more often at our university. As a student with chronic health issues and a hearing impairment, and a member of the CDO Team, I was personally and professionally reminded of the importance of improving accessibility at the UvA. I’m hoping that in the future we can deepen these conversations by taking an intersectional approach. We should be involving more students, in particular black and POC (people of colour) students with disabilities in the organizational part of such talks and pay them for their labour. We should be inviting more black and POC (people of colour) speakers as well. Disabilities and chronic health issues are normal and do not discriminate as they affect people from various ethnicities. But judging by all the white speakers during this symposium, you’d think that only white people can be disabled and should be centered in these conversations. On the contrary, black and POC people are more likely to be extra marginalized when they have disabilities so their voices need to be centralized too. Ending on some very practical notes that will hopefully be taken into consideration by future event organizers, the symposium should have been held in English (or at least in Dutch AND English) to cater to the members of the UvA community who do not speak Dutch. I also missed interpreters. Even if no audience member has signed up for a sign language interpreter, speech-to-text interpreters should always be present because their work helps make a public event more accessible for all who for whatever reason struggle to keep up with what is being said. It would have also been nice if minutes of the symposium were published online for those who couldn’t attend. This goes to show that improving accessibility is constant work-in-progress, and we can all contribute by making these conversations happen and respecting the agency and autonomy of people with disabilities.

Are you a student with a disability and/or chronic illness and eager to change things at the UvA with like-minded students, contact the Student Disability Platform: studentdisability@uva.nl

Do you have any ideas on how the CDO Team could help improve accessibility at the UvA? Contact us at: diversity@uva.nl

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