From physical barriers such as narrow doorways and aisles, or the lack of automatic or push-button doors, to difficulties in accessing the right information about inclusive programmes offered by universities, students with disabilities aiming to attend higher education in Switzerland must still face many challenges. However, Switzerland’s higher education system is opening the doors to welcome students of all backgrounds. In recent years, many Swiss universities have established equal opportunity/gender, diversity or special needs/disability offices where it is possible to seek advice before applying to a university and to find support throughout the academic years.
“There is a sort of healthy competition among Swiss universities to be more inclusive. They understand that embracing these students can be very beneficial for all”, says Brian McGowan, Diversity Officer at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences.
McGowan argues that, in comparison to some years ago when he was himself a student with disabilities, the progress is tangible. Overall, the universities rely on two pillars to develop their inclusion policies: one is exchanges with associations and activists for the rights of people with disabilities, the other is discussion fora among universities.
There are multiple forms of visible and invisible disability, such as:
• Physical disability: reduced mobility, hearing difficulties, deafness, visual impairment, blindness, cerebral palsy, etc.
• Chronic: disabling conditions and pain, narcolepsy, the consequences of a stroke, etc.
• Mental illnesses: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, neuroses, etc.
• Learning difficulties: dyslexia, dysorthographia, dyspraxia, etc.
• Speech and communications disorders.
• Attention deficit disorder (ADD) with or without hyperactivity, autism, etc.
According to McGowan, the different associations and the higher education institutions work hand in hand to provide support for all sorts of disabilities so that the number of potential students in university campuses can increase.
The Federal Statistical Office estimates that 1.7 million people with disabilities live in Switzerland, which represents 20% of the country’s population. However, when it comes to higher education, McGowan estimates that the share of persons with disabilities is only 8%, and he regrets that: “There is a lack of national coordination for the implementation of equal opportunity measures.”
The principles of the Swiss Federal Act on the Elimination of Discrimination against People with Disabilities state “the purpose of preventing, reducing or eliminating discrimination against people with disabilities.” Besides this national law, Switzerland has also signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Access to university starts by making it physically possible for students to move around the campus. The “barrier-free university” is an initiative aiming to make university facilities universally accessible to people with disabilities.
The Universities of Saint Gallen Basel and Lucerne, for instance, invest in clever technologies to overcome physical obstacles. Tools such as an interactive campus map to list wheelchair access and disabled toilets, hearing aid loops in auditoriums, disabled parking spaces, pictograms explaining the accessibility of buildings, and monitors to indicate the use of platform stairlifts are simple solutions that can have a great impact.
Many universities also adopt guidelines to involve the staff in the fight for inclusiveness. Notably, during the COVID-19 pandemic, lecturers and professors have had to look after the students’ remote learning. Basic recommendations, such as sharing teaching materials before the course, enabled students with a visual or acoustic disability to follow the courses with more confidence. Keeping eye contact in front of the camera, ensuring the speaker is well illuminated, and providing video materials with subtitles were also some essential tips to make distance learning effective and to thereby avoid non-attendance of classes during the pandemic.
McGowan also highlights the importance of the disability compensation measures that give equal opportunity to all students. ETH Zurich, for instance, ensures that students with specific needs may take examinations at equivalent levels of performance, but under the appropriate conditions. This grants people with disabilities fair access to examinations and the grading system.
For students with disabilities and their families, planning for higher education should start in childhood, and children must have the opportunity to attend regular, integrative schools.
McGowan summarises the key steps for a successful application:
• Contact the school/university as early as possible to find out about the infrastructure and support provided.
• Bring along a medical certification proving the impairment, in order to receive the necessary support.
• Pay attention to what are the most suitable academic options, since not all universities have the same level of services for students with disabilities. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, those advocating for people with disabilities advise students to know their rights. After all, the law does ensure that all may access and attend higher education. Therefore, increasing awareness about integration mechanisms is crucial to ensure people with disabilities can make informed choices about their education.