Social responsibility: Enabling exchange for students with disabilities

Social responsibility: Enabling exchange for students with disabilities

“I was a bit afraid as a disabled person to travel on my own but I found that once I got here, I was assisted very well” says Sheena Overmeyer, the first North-South-South exchange student from South-Africa to receive an accessibility grant to enable her exchange. Sheena studied at Åbo Akademi University in Finland during 2012. The comprehensive accessibility grants available to students, teachers and staff are making a difference for individuals and higher education institutions.

The grants also serve wider goals of international development cooperation. Here you can find a case description of the North-South-South-programme as well as an overview of what has been done in Finland to promote inclusion and accessibility in higher education.

Enhancing human capacity and reducing inequalities

The North-South-South Higher Education Institution Network Programme funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, administered by Centre for International Mobility (CIMO) supports cooperation between higher education institutions in Finland and developing countries with a focus on student and teacher mobility. Funding is granted to networks composed of higher education institutions in Finland and developing countries. All countries eligible for Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding are able to apply, but institutions in the least developed countries are prioritised in selections.

The purpose of the programme is to develop sustainable partnerships and enhance human capacity and higher education. Furthermore, the programme supports the achievement of the goals of Finland’s development policy programme (2012). Marked by a human rights-based approach, the policy programme has a strong emphasis on reduction of inequalities and promotion of the rights and equal opportunities for participation of easily marginalised groups such as children, ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities.

In accordance with the cross-cutting objectives of the policy programme themes such as accountability, promotion of gender equality and reduction of inequalities have been present also in the activities of the networks funded within the North-South-South programme. For example, the thematic networks address issues such as human rights and gender, and intensive courses organised in the southern partner institutions have discussed topics such as poverty, rights of disabled persons as well as HIV and aids among others. This has enabled the networks to raise awareness and bring to the focus difficult questions related to the rights and status of some of the society’s most marginalised and vulnerable groups.

In addition, many networks have paid special attention to mainstreaming non-discriminatory and inclusionary practices in the implementation of their own activities by facilitating equal opportunities for participation: one third of the participants attending an intensive course with the theme of rights and status of disabled persons were actually disabled themselves. The accessibility grant has furthered the possibilities of equal participation; it assisted one teacher with a disability to take part in the course.

Sheena too encourages fellow students to actively seek and utilise the opportunities to participate in international mobility: “I do not think that disabled students should in any way be afraid of traveling abroad or traveling on this programme.”

Accessibility grants

CIMO promotes international mobility and cooperation by providing expertise and services and by implementing various exchange, trainee and scholarship programmes. Furthermore, CIMO promotes equal opportunities to participate in international cooperation. An important step was taken as accessibility grants were introduced to all higher education mobility programmes administered by CIMO, including North-South-South. There were previous beneficial experiences of such grants in the Erasmus programme and now this approach was expanded to nationally funded programmes as well. As a result, a systematic grant scheme was established to these higher education programmes with comprehensive accessibility grants for both Finnish students and those of other nationalities.

Accessibility grants enable international mobility in circumstances when an injury, disability, illness, learning difficulty or other special need causes additional costs which are not covered by other sources. The grants can be awarded to accessible accommodation, assisted mobility or such study-related special arrangements as learning materials. There is a rolling deadline for applications and the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. There is no predefined amount for the grant, but the decision is always based on the individual needs of the applicant.

Sharing of best practices

A crucial element in promoting accessibility in international mobility is the link between the international coordinators and accessibility coordinators at the higher education institution level. Sharing of best practices between these parties is essential in order to make the students and staff member’s path to exchange as smooth as possible. As a result, CIMO has cooperated with various stakeholders and actors, in particular the Finnish Inclusive Higher Education – project ESOK, which promotes accessibility and brings together the accessibility coordinators in Finnish higher education institutions.

One example of this fruitful cooperation between CIMO and ESOK is the Accessibility and International Student Mobility – Check List for Exchange Students and Higher Education Institutions. This check list provides practical tips and information for the most crucial parties in making the exchange a success: the student and the sending and receiving institution. The list has been developed in dialogue with the Finnish higher education institutions and will continue to be updated.

In the future, CIMO will maintain accessibility on the top of the agenda. The past experiences have provided evidence of the indisputable benefits of the additional support and the importance of encouraging individuals with disabilities to take part in an exchange. CIMO will continue to gather best practices and experiences of the accessibility grant scheme. Sheena’s testimony is a strong one:

“I would say to any other student that it has been a great and interesting but also challenging experience. […] It just has been really good and helped me not only academically but also socially and emotionally. It really has expanded my worldview.”

» Watch the whole interview with Sheena here
» View the check list for creating successful exchanges

By Vilja Liikanen and Sini Piippo, Higher Education Cooperation Unit, CIMO, Finland