• Education

A story of firsts: Sabine and Theresa talk about Austria's first inclusive higher education programme and their journey

Humans of EASPD makes a comeback with the story of the people behind inclusive higher education in Salzburg.

Austria got its first inclusive higher education programme for persons with intellectual disabilities at the Salzburg University of Education Stefan Zweigin in 2017, giving every student a chance to work towards their dream job.

Named the BLuE programme, it is a 4-year programme that is fully inclusive and helps people with intellectual disabilities to explore university courses by attending lectures and courses with their peers without disabilities – no segregation, no exclusion.

But who are the people behind this programme and what is their story?

After a few years of working and researching inclusion and equity in lecture rooms at universities, Sabine Harter-Reiter and Theresa Thalhamer from the Salzburg University of Education Stefan Zweigin tell us their story and experience with inclusive higher education. From entering the unchartered waters of inclusion in Austrian universities to fighting the rigid educational system to breaking stereotypes, they share it all!


Tell me your story and your journey to working in higher and inclusive education.

Sabine: It was a journey of walking into the unknown. With no specific experience or background in special education, the department I was working in asked me to join the BLuE programme. I travelled to the US and got to know an American Think Tank that had close to 300 programmes focusing on inclusive university courses for persons with disabilities.

We started looking into how professors can organise their classes differently. This triggered a change in my research – I became flexible. My thinking and approach towards understanding inclusive education forced me to move beyond what’s written in a research paper and focus on the real and practical aspects of including students with intellectual disabilities in a lecture room. That was the starting point of my career in inclusive education.

Theresa: I started my career as a teacher and had experience in teaching people with disabilities. I also have experience of working in education in the US. Therefore, I knew it was possible to transit to inclusive education — especially within higher education. If other countries can do it, why not us? So, I joined the BLuE programme to search and organise internships for our students with intellectual disabilities.

What is inclusive education to you?

Sabine: Education should naturally mean “inclusive education”. If society thinks everyone can not benefit from it, then they are wrong. Having an educational system that is inclusive is important for us all – it’s a learning experience altogether. Universities cannot be closed temples; we need to stop the gatekeeping.

Theresa: Inclusive education means to have a choice. For me, it means everyone has the same right to access education at all levels and all ages – quality education. In fact, “empowerment” is in the name of the BLuE programme. And I truly feel that choosing a university course that can determine your career to be extremely empowering for anyone!

What were some of the challenges you faced?

Sabine: In Austria, higher education is not too expensive. BLuE programme students don’t even pay a fee. This doesn’t naturally indicate that everyone has equal access. A trend we have seen in the BLuE programme is that the students come from well off academic backgrounds and affluent families. We want to break this barrier and increase the ambit of students getting access to good quality inclusive education.

Theresa: Nothing could prepare us for this journey ­­­­– we could not anticipate the barriers till we actually hit them. I realised Austria was lagging massively in even trying to implement inclusive education in universities. It frustrates me to see how strongly the system pushes back when you want to implement change. However, it was this exact challenge that motivated me to finding a path to inclusion.

One significant challenge we face is that we do the BLuE programme as part of a huge workload. We are first and foremost lecturers at the University of Salzburg and this obligation has to be fulfilled before anything else we take on board. Therefore, we require a lot of personal motivation, enthusiasm, and extra hours to implement the inclusive education goal.  

High and lows of your journey in this sector – how does these moments impact of your work?

Sabine: Sometimes the highs of this journey seem limited. But then I see a group of students at university and among them there are 1 or 2 students with intellectual disabilities that joined the course. It makes all the struggle instantly worth it!

Theresa: As I work more with the internship part of the BLuE programme, my high point in this journey is when a student from the programme gets an internship. Some of these internships lead to full time jobs, sometimes outside of the ‘boxed in’ preconceptions of the jobs people with intellectual disabilities are stereotypically imagined doing.

However, on the flip side, when a student does not find an internship, it’s discouraging. There are some semesters when it’s hard to find internships for students with intellectual disabilities as companies do not have experience in hiring them, which is why the pool of opportunities shrink.

What are future improvements that you’d like to see in higher education and Salzburg?

Sabine: More diversity. Universities and schools should have this and have this standard to create excellence – they need to have more inclusive programmes. Currently, we are the only programme in Austria for higher education – and that is a problem. The more universities get involved, the more courses and more choices open up for students with intellectual disabilities. Additionally, we also want students from a diverse background to join inclusive university courses.

Theresa: I want Austrian national law to ratify the right to access education by all. The law is the strongest way to push universities and higher education to open up their gates and stop being exclusive institutions.