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Inclusive University Digital Education: Partner in Focus Universität Klagenfurt

Andreas Jeitler

Mark Wasserman

With the InclUDE Project now in its final months, in this ‘Partner in Focus’ we are talking with Andreas Jeitler and Mark Wassermann, members of Universität Klagenfurt.

While working towards the creation of inclusive education systems, higher education institutions are a step in a learner’s education journey which  still often remains inaccessible. To change this, the Inclusive University Digital Education (InclUDE) project aims to provide universities and students with the tools and knowledge to create accessible digital learning environments.   

With the InclUDE Project now in its final months, in this ‘Partner in Focus’ we are talking with Andreas Jeitler and Mark Wassermann, members of Universität Klagenfurt. The Universität Klagenfurt is a federal Austrian research university and the largest research and higher education institution in the province of Carinthia in Austria.

Andreas Jeitler is responsible for Accessibility Services in the university library. He is also the legal representative of employees with disabilities to the employer (comparable to the staff council), and the Chairman of Uniability, the working group for the equality of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses at Austria's universities and colleges. Uniability is the umbrella organization of disability advocates and others working in the field of disability equality in the tertiary education sector. Andreas gives lectures as well.

Mark Wassermann is the Deputy Head of the University Executive Support Office for Health Management, Occupational Health and Safety & Accessibility. In the Accessibility Office, he supports and gives advice to students with disabilities as well as lecturers. In addition, he is Representative for people with disabilities (university executive support office and key contact concerning "People with Disabilities and Accessibility") and First Deputy of the legal representative of employees with disabilities. He also works as a disability consultant for various projects.

Can you please briefly introduce the Universität Klagenfurt? How many students are studying at the university? What are its key aims?

Mark:  The university has approximately 10,000 students. We are a university for research and teaching, so the focus is on doing research and giving lectures.

Andreas: I would wish for the university to focus on becoming an accessible university, as is stated in our statutes.

Andreas, you are responsible for University Library Accessibility Services and are also the legal representative of employees with disabilities to the employer, can you please explain to us what some of your day-to-day activities are in this role?

Andreas: My daily activities cover a wide range of topics. For example: if there are any systems that are not really accessible, like websites, they will be referred to me and I will have to assess them for their accessibility and suggest improvements. Part of my work is making literature accessible. I also do consultations, if students come to me and ask how to study in spite of their disability, or if there are ways of making it easier for them to study. A lot of my work is centred on the individual. Just because somebody has a visual impairment does not mean that they all study materials in the same way. Learning and finding how to successfully accommodate any learning needs is something that has to be tailored to the individual, something that everybody needs to find out for themselves.

Mark: We also work a lot with people's personal assistance. The "Beratungs-, Mobilitäts- und Kompetenzzentrum (BMKz; Carinthian Independent Living Movement) founded at our university and is still located here. Its aim is to increase the self-determination of people with disabilities. The concrete work of the centre concerns personal assistance at the university, in the workplace, in leisure time and at federal schools.

Mark, you are also closely working with Andreas on accessibility considerations at the university as Deputy Head of the Health Management, Occupational Health and Safety & Accessibility Office at the university. What does this role involve?

Mark: I used to be my own department. Then – in 2018, I think – I merged with the areas of health management, safety and accessibility, because a separate executive support office was founded in order to deal with health management, occupational health and safety and, of course, accessibility. My duties in this executive support office are to give advice to students with disability and chronic illnesses.

I also give advice and support to my colleagues from the university staff – lecturers, administrative staff – with regard to accessibility. If they have students who need accessibility accommodations and the staff does not have the necessary know-how, then I am the one they contact. If there are students or school graduates beginning their studies, then we look at their concrete situation together: What kind of accommodation did they have at school? What kind of support can we offer? What is the person going to need? How can we arrange this? The focus is on giving the students the chance of studying in a self-determined way, where they assume responsibility for themselves. We will not "carry them" through their studies, but provide them with individual accommodation and accessibility. 

And you are also a consultant for university staff with questions about accessibility?

Mark: Like Andreas, I have a lot of functions. One of them is the Accessibility Office as part of the university executive support office, where I also support lecturers and staff. If lecturers tell me that they have students with disabilities and they do not know how to support and include them, then I am there for them. I am also Andreas's deputy as "Behindertenvertrauensperson"; that is as contact person for all staff members with disabilities. And I am also "Behindertenbeauftragter" – that is I am the central contact person for people with and without disability with regard to the topic of disability.
As I mentioned before, this is customized advice tailored to each individual’s needs.

Andreas: I can remember a colleague with an eye disease that leads to extreme tunnel vision. The lecturer printed out extremely large graphics in DIN A3, because he thought bigger is better. And he had a hard time accepting that she could not use them because she could see only a small part of them. During such consultation meetings I always try to explain to the lecturers that such measures are of little use. We also use teaching assistants.  

Can you tell us more about what the University is currently doing to promote the inclusion of students with accessibility or support needs? 

Mark: We were one of the first universities to actively work to create a more inclusive environment In 2005/2006, the university wrote a policy  on inclusion into part E2 of our statutes. Unfortunately, in daily life there is a gap between what is written and what is done, so we still need to fight. There is still work to be done, people to be convinced …  
However, the campus is quite accessible, where structural measures are concerned.

Andreas: The Court of Auditors released a new report last month stating that they are not satisfied with the situation at the universities, again highlighting how far we have to go.

Mark: For example, none of the Austrian universities fulfil all their obligations according to the Disability Employment Act. Klagenfurt is leading in this area, because we really pushed the recruitment of people with disability, also as scientific staff.

How many employees with disability does the university have? And how many students?

Mark: All in all, they number approx. 40 people; that is, about 30 administrative and 12 scientific staff. As for students, that is difficult.

Andreas: That is something that was criticized in that report by the Court of Auditors as well: the universities do not have any concrete numbers for students with disabilities. We only have numbers where they access services, and this is usually only a small part of the students concerned.

Mark: Before COVID, we had about 150 students who did not have to pay any tuition fees due to their disability. That is about 1.5 % of our students. These students have a range of disabilities from psychological illnesses to wheelchair users, visually impaired or blind people.

We see COVID as a watershed moment for moving to online teaching methodologies. What has been the university’s experience in using online learning methodologies, both during and now after the pandemic? Were you involved in the move online? How did you manage this? What did you have to consider? 

Mark: I can answer the last question right now: no, we were not involved. As is often the case, afterwards we criticized some things and commented on some things that did not work so well. However, Klagenfurt was lucky, because the e-learning department had been working on online teaching for some time already. So, they were relatively fast, and – all in all – good work was done with online teaching.

Concerning accessibility, this was more difficult, because BigBlueButton (Note: the video conference program used at the university) initially had some problems. There are differences between the various tools. Some universities used Zoom, others Webex, which was not accessible at all in the beginning. In my view, online teaching was accepted very well at first. Later on, it turned out that it was also a challenge. Sitting in front of a computer all day long is much harder than sitting in a lecture hall, also with regard to teaching. My personal opinion is that there will be a massive reduction in online teaching, because people want back into the lecture halls.

Andreas: Nobody wants to hear anything about hybrid teaching. That is a topic that I broached during the first wave of the pandemic: for autumn, we need to think about concepts for hybrid teaching. Unfortunately, nothing much happened. About online teaching as such: some lecturers do it very well. Many – or probably most of them – do not do it so well, because it needs a different kind of didactics. I need to use teaching concepts that are completely different from classroom teaching. One of the big problems of online teaching is the lack of feedback. In my lectures, I now prefer to have all the cameras on. Not because I absolutely want to see all of them, but because this leads to more involvement. If I as lecturer am the only one to have my camera on, I have no idea whether the students are even there. You ask them something, and from time to time you get something back … You need different concepts, you need to involve the students. They need to be doing something. You can make them work in small groups in breakout rooms – i.e. you tell them to work on a topic and then we'll discuss it together … anyhow, you need to keep them involved, so they don't drift off into thoughts. Andreas: Coming back to students with disabilities: many of them like online teaching. One of the reasons is that I can do it from home, for example, if I don't feel well today. In my case this is also an advantage because of my hearing impairment. I am wearing headphones with which I can understand everything extremely well. Everybody is forced to use a microphone, that is great; I don't get that in a lecture hall or in a seminar room. With regard to my vision impairment, this is also an advantage because many things will be available in a digital format. Although, if they are using BigBlueButton or Zoom and sharing their screens, this will not help a blind person unless the text is read out loud. If somebody has some vision left like me, I can use this to my advantage and enlarge the screen. This is something I don't get in a lecture hall. If someone is blind, it won't help. But such experiences are individual. This is why it is so important not to specify set conditions for a work environment just because a person is visually impaired or blind. This is different for each individual. And there are various factors involved, like my own experience, my experience with the equipment and also the whole environment.

And you advise the students on this?

Mark: We do that to some extent when students come to us. We chat with them and develop an assistance based on what they tell us. I have never met two people completely alike.  

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

Mark: On the one hand, the lack of awareness. The people implementing online teaching had a clear goal in mind: this is about making teaching possible for the whole university. Because of the lack of awareness of the importance of this topic, it just wasn't done. Not because they didn't want to do it, but because it didn't appear in the process.

People need that basic awareness that a good design is accessible; and a design that isn't accessible is a bad, faulty design. People need to know, ok, if I have done this in an accessible way, I've done well. And if I forget about accessibility, if I don't want, or can't do it, then it's not a good product. That is one thing. And on the other hand, something that certainly has been reinforced through the pandemic and that will probably come to haunt us on a daily basis: that we will hear that so much money has been spent during the pandemic that there is no budget and no resources left. That means accessibility will be put on the backburner. That is what I am afraid of.

Andreas: I think that one of the main problems still is that the lecturers don't get enough assistance. I mean they get some assistance, there are even workshops about creative online teaching offered as internal trainings, but I think that our colleagues are only partially aware of that. And I think that the majority believes that we are a presence university and online teaching is something temporary, then we will return to only presence courses again. If I really wanted hybrid teaching, I would need the required technical equipment in all the rooms where teaching takes place. And this equipment would need to function in a way that the lecturers don't need to grapple with it. I enter the room, everything is there, I press a button for hybrid teaching and that's it.

The InclUDE project will provide a repository of digital accessibility tools for use by students and lecturers, it will also provide guidelines for lecturers on how to create more accessible and inclusive classes. How do you see the materials of the InclUDE project supporting your work?

Mark: Well, if you provide the lecturers with practical advice like that transcription tool for subtitles in PowerPoint. Or providing them with basic notions about accessible lectures. I really like those Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Those are aimed at the web and electronic documents, but in reality, you can apply them to everything – to buildings, lectures … And if you take those four basic principles of being perceivable, understandable, operable and robust - you can apply them to everything. If I apply them to a lecture: what I am saying must be perceivable in a visual way as well, e.g. through subtitles, a sign language interpreter … And if there is something on the slide that is not perceivable for somebody who cannot see, then I have to explain that with spoken language. I think that with such practical advice teaching can become much more accessible without a lot of effort. This is more about awareness and lecturers wanting to do it than a substantial technical effort.

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

Mark: Where do I start, where do I stop? At the moment, we are not involved in digital accessibility at all. Or in the digital world as such. This is also about resources, because people are afraid that our involvement will make it more expensive and more complicated and take more time. But all the systems we use are electronic ones. So, this is an area where we need people with disabilities, experts on accessibility – I consciously do not say experts acting in their own cause, but experts on the topic of accessibility. Else they will buy something and as an afterthought they will ask: "Oh, is that accessible?" No, it's not. And then they do their best to improve upon it, but this is like a building: if I don't build it so that it is accessible, then I will need to do a lot of expensive rework afterwards, modifications and additions, which will cost a lot of money. Instead, I simply could take these things into account from the beginning. That would be my wish.

Andreas: I would also wish for the universities to do more where this topic is concerned, by training their staff to be more aware. Many colleagues do not know how to deal with disability, are not aware of the problems. And once they are in this situation, they have no idea what to do. And I would wish that dealing with disability becomes something normal. So that as a person with a disability I don't have to think about participating in a lecture – that it is quite normal that my needs will be considered or even that the lecture is planned in a way that there are no problems and everybody is included. Plus, I have some advice for you regarding the Guidelines: Frequently Asked Questions would be important. So that people could look up the information: if I have a student with a visual impairment, what will I need to do?

Mark: And we also use provocation a lot. For example, I have a badge that says "Blind, but not stupid". Shocking people into action and making disability something normal through sarcasm.

What I note in my job – and what needs to be included in awareness-raising measures – is explaining to people without disabilities what they have done wrong. For example, it often happens to us that an architect builds a house. Then we arrive and tell them what they have done wrong. And then they are completely shocked and complain that we are aggressive. Because we tell them what they have done wrong.

So, if they involved you right from the beginning, there would not be any discussion afterwards?

Mark: If you compare Central European error tolerance with Anglo-Saxon error tolerance … This starts in school. They judge you based on the mistakes you make, what you are doing wrong, and not what you are doing right. And this is something that people with disabilities and accessibility issues experience all too clearly.

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