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Inclusive University Digital Education: Partner in Focus

This month the InclUDE project spoke to the Université Rennes II Disability Support Office, to learn how the university is working to include students with disabilities in its education programmes.

The Inclusive University Digital Education (InclUDE) project aims to promote the realisation of accessible and inclusive higher education opportunities for students with special educational needs.

Each of the project’s four partners believe in the realisation of inclusive and accessible higher education for all.  The project’s French partner,  Université Rennes II, is the largest centre for research and higher education in the fields of human and social sciences in western France and works to support the inclusion of students with long or short-term disabilities in student life.

In this ‘Partner in Focus’ we interviewed Erwann Delisle, a member of Université Rennes II’s Student Disability Support Office, to learn about how the university is working to include students with disabilities in its education programmes.

How many students do you have studying at the Université Rennes II? How many of those students do you support via your unit?

Université Rennes II’s (UR2) welcomes more than 24,000 students to its 5 different faculties: Arts,  Literature and Communication; Modern Languages; Human Sciences; Social Sciences; Sports Sciences. In comparison to other French universities, we have a high number of students with disabilities and from the disability support unit, we support around 800 students across the 5 faculties. This includes the faculty of sports science, which is a discipline for which many people wrongly believe that students with disabilities cannot be fully included. At the university we have many students with disabilities taking part in the sports science course however, with the need for minimal accommodations.

In the project the Université Rennes II is leading the development of guidelines for lecturers to be able to better include students from a variety of backgrounds. What is the university/your unit currently doing in this field? 

In France every university must produce a ‘Disability Policy Programme’ for the inclusion of staff and students with support needs, so I think that we can use these experiences for the development of the guidelines. The process of developing the policy and the policy itself differs for each university. At UR2, we develop the policy in a collaborative way. The document was last written in 2017 and for this we invited our staff and students to contribute. We had over 100 people respond to our request, and they provided input to our policy on the following topics:

  • The reception and support of persons with disabilities.
  • Physical and digital accessibility for persons with disabilities.
  • Training and research on disability (which is then streamed lined into research activities in a European level).
  • Human resource and recruitment of persons with disabilities.
  • Orientation and professional integration.
  • A state of the art, identifying challenges and proposed solutions.

For the 2017 policy document, it was mainly staff and students with disabilities who contributed to the development of the document. Since then, a group of students without disabilities has started to show a greater interest in creating a more inclusive campus. As a result, we hope that during the updating of this document this year we will have more students from a diverse background involved.

What has been the university’s experience in using online learning methodologies, both during and now after the pandemic?

UR2 has already implemented distance learning before the pandemic, this has been part of our work to be more inclusive to those from different backgrounds. As a result, our online learning tools were already operational and integrated into the student experience.

Do you think that the experiences of using these tools differed between teaching staff and students?

 I don’t think so, I think that students and teachers face similar challenges. It is maybe harder for teachers, as younger students can typically have a better understanding of current technologies, but the tools can sometimes be more complex than everyday technology we use.

During COVID students, including those with disabilities; adapted well. The activities of the unit slowed down, with less face-to-face teaching. We were on hand to provide support if needed, but less support was required. We found that technology provided many of the solutions, but also a lot of the students we would support turned to their families who were at home with them instead.

Luckily for us, a lack of access to hardware was less of an issue during the pandemic as the university were able to lend computers to any student who needed them.

Have you faced any specific challenges to creating an inclusive/accessible university? What do you think is the biggest barrier?

Misunderstandings of invisible disabilities is one of biggest challenges. Too often people only consider those with physical disabilities however intellectual and psychological disabilities also require greater understanding and awareness raising.

At UR2 we are doing a lot of work on awareness raising and training for staff, so that they can learn more about different types of disabilities and how they can include students who may have additional support needs. A key action of the university is a ‘disability referral’ program which ensures that in each faculty of the university, there is a professional who teachers can contact for guidance and information on how to include students with disabilities in their teaching.

Looking at the issue of inclusion and accessibility with a wider lens, right now in France there is a debate around gender inclusive language. To be more inclusive there is a movement to add ‘.e’ at the end of nouns and adjectives to ensure that the feminine and masculine versions of the word are represented. However, this solution is less inclusive to those who are blind, as a screen reader has difficulties reading the text. It is also less inclusive to those who have dyslexia or are non-native French speakers. This is something we have to consider at the university, while wanted to both be inclusive to those of differing genders, but also accessible to all. It is an example of challenges we face in making our communication accessible and inclusive to as many people as possible.

How will the work of the InclUDE project support your work?

The role the project will play in sharing experiences and practices is particularly important for us. When we work on our disability programme, we like to connect with our universities to see how they develop their policies and try to incorporate new ideas. This project will help to bring together this information and strengthen our connection with other universities working towards the same goal.

What are your top three tips for universities to become more inclusive? 

My first would be to create a referral programme such as we have done at UR2, the second would be to provide disability awareness training to students and staff to promote better understanding for everyone. For me these are the 2 crucial and universal actions. Diffusing information to overcome misconceptions and ensure the correct support is provided is very important.

To find out more about the InclUDE project, click here.