Studying in a wheelchair

Invisible barriers

The university recently made an embarrassing mistake: the building where a meeting about studying while physically impaired was held was not handicap accessible. It was an unfortunate incident, but the real obstacles occur on the inside. ‘Building access is good, but access to education isn’t’
By Wouter Hoogland / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

A meeting for and about  wheelchair-bound students started out awkwardly: they had to ascend a set of steps.

An embarrassing mistake, but in general, the RUG is properly accessible to people in wheelchairs, says student Jasper Oenema.

According to Jasper’s mother, who works at the RUG, building access is good, but access to education is not.

She says that the RUG does not take sufficient account of the limitations of handicapped students.
People with physical impairments often spend longer periods of time in the hospital, the VGN says. Higher education does not take this into consideration at all.

Flexible learning might offer a solution; Utrecht and Amsterdam are running experiments with this. But the RUG is not joining in.

Or: Treat students with a handicap as though they were top athletes. The top athlete arrangement gives students extra opportunities to take exams.

Reading time: 6 minutes (1,013 words)

Maaike Kersten, the wheelchair-bound founder of aid organisation Wiel&Deal, was present at the meeting. She had to be carried up the stairs of the administrative building. ‘I don’t really want to talk about it right now, but I let them have it’, she says. She missed most of the meeting. ‘I was just too angry to pay attention.’

Because of the incident, the UK asked Jasper Oenema (28) to check the university buildings in the city centre. Due to a combination of nervous disease and a heart defect, Jasper’s legs barely work. He is confined to a wheelchair. During his expedition, he discovered that accessibility is not really an issue: it took him a little longer sometimes and the route was not always straightforward, but he always managed to get where he is going.


Ineke Oenema-Mostert is Jasper’s mother. She works as an assistant professor in the orthopedagogy department at the RUG. She noticed the issues Jasper had taking his classes. According to her, the problems are not with the buildings’ layout. ‘Building access is good, but the access to education isn’t.’

Employees at the RUG are willing to help figure it out, Oenema-Mostert finds. But the university itself is rather inflexible, she says. Students with an impairment are still expected to get enough points for a positive bsa within the first year. If they fall ill in that first year and are out of commission for a longer period of time, no exception is made for them.

Why is this? Oenema-Mostert: ‘I understand that tailoring a programme to a single person takes a lot of time, which means money.’ Yet she feels the solution is obvious. ‘The University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University of Applied Sciences are experimenting with flexible learning. Students can say for themselves how many points they want to get in a year.’ The RUG does not have this experiment.

Top athletes

They do have one arrangement that Oenema-Mostert thinks could benefit handicapped students. ‘They should treat students with a handicap as though they were top athletes. The top athlete arrangement at the RUG gives those students extra chances to take exams. Championships are easier to plan than hospital stays, obviously, but it’d be a start.’

Johan van Ruijven, with the Dutch Association for Services for the Disabled (VGN) recognises this particular complaint. ‘People with physical impairments often spend longer periods of time in the hospital. Educational institutions should come up with new ways to work around that, such as offering the possibility to take classes in the hospital. But the Netherlands are quite behind in this compared to the US and Canada, for example.’

According to Jan Wolthuis at the RUG, the university does offer students with a disability the option to study at their own pace. ‘We’ve had a policy with specific arrangements in place for some time now. As far as we’re concerned, everything is fine. Sure, there might be some tensions between our general policies on the one hand and the special needs of people with an impairment on the other. The general policies usually don’t offer sufficient options in those cases.’


Yet Maaike Kersten feels that that university is not looking at things from the students’ point of view. ‘It’s nice that they have something in place for students with a physical impairment. But people are unique, and each impairment is unique as well. Different people face different types of problems. So they should really be looking for tailored solutions.’

Van Ruijven at the VGN also feels that the general approach the university maintains is insufficient. ‘As it stands, handicapped people are too often excluded. Instead of making education more inclusive, we come up with separate solutions for them.’ Wolthuis agrees that tailored solutions are needed. ‘While there is some nuance to how it’s approached, we don’t always keep proper track of whether it’s working out for the actual individuals. But there are no indications that it’s not working.’

Four versus twelve per cent

According to the National Student Survey, no more than four per cent of students in higher education have a physical impairment, whereas among the general Dutch population between  the ages of 12 and 79, that number rises to twelve per cent. Jasper Oenema makes a sweeping gesture in the full cafeteria at the Harmonie building. ‘Not including me, how often do we see people in wheelchairs here? I have no idea, but apparently they don’t study here.’

According to him, that is due to the selection process. ‘A special needs student is very expensive to a programme. You have to prove that you’re worth that investment. And not everyone with an impairment is able to actually finish their studies, so you end up having to really advertise yourself to get a spot.’

Jan Wolthuis also thinks that the emphasis on results plays a role here. ‘Certainly over the past few years it has become more difficult to get in, especially for people with physical impairments because they study at a slower pace. But the university also wants to be an effective educational institution.’

Less energy

Ineke Oenema-Mostert suspects many students decide to study at a level below what they are actually capable of. ‘They tend to have less energy. So they might decide to do a programme at a university of applied sciences because it’s easier to keep up with that.’ Or even worse, they decide not to study at all.

And that is a shame, says Maaike Kersten. Because studying can help you make connections that can help you out later. ‘They might just help you get a job in the future. One of your connections might tell his boss: ‘Sure, Pete’s in a wheelchair, but he’s a great guy.’ It’s a great way to get people to engage and contribute to society and off benefit, like many of them currently are.’


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