Students With Illnesses How Humane Are Our Universities?

A total of eight per cent of all students are severely limited by their health, yet the strange thing about their disability is that in most cases it cannot be seen at first glance. The reason is that the majority are not physically disabled, but are suffering from chronic and mental illnesses. It is this group in particular however that lecturers tend not to bother too much about when it comes to lightening the burden of a Bachelor’s or Master’s course.

Poster “Vielfalt” (diversity) by Alexandra Wilhelm, 3rd prize, 26th poster competition of the Association of German Student Services Organisations, 2012, FH Mainz, Prof. Dr. Isabel Naegele; © Alexandra Wilhelm Poster “Vielfalt” (diversity) by Alexandra Wilhelm, 3rd prize, 26th poster competition of the Association of German Student Services Organisations, 2012, FH Mainz, Prof. Dr. Isabel Naegele | © Alexandra Wilhelm The only sign that might reveal that 29-year-old Sandra Schmidt (name changed by the editor) has a serious problem in her head is a long scar under her hairline. Nevertheless it is a problem that is always with her on her course at the University of Cologne where she is taking a Master’s program in education. Sandra suffers from epilepsy. In the years 2004 and 20012 she underwent two operations for a brain tumour. As the tumour was located near to the centre of speech in her brain, certain neural connections that are vital for processing language were severed. Since then the student has great difficulty in memorising information.

She was one of the first students to take a Bachelor’s course in her subject. The seminars were attended by a mixture of Bachelor candidates and students doing the German Diplom degree course. “It was also very strenuous even in the first few terms as the lecture halls were so full of people and nobody knew where they had to go.” Planning one’s course of study was also not exactly trouble-free, because the web-based lecture administration was not yet fully developed in terms of technology. “The whole system just did not function as it was supposed to,” says Schmidt.

Always under pressure

She herself however had to function, right from the start she had to work to her fullest capacity - on a Bachelor’s degree course the marks from the first exams contribute to the student’s final mark. “I was under pressure the whole time and was so relieved when the five years were over,” says Schmidt. She failed psychology exams twice - she simply needs more time for the actual writing of the test. In oral exams it can take quite a few seconds for the right answer to come to mind. She spent most of the term vacations re-sitting exams. This is why she then realised it was necessary to talk to the examiners about her chronic illness. “I don’t really care - if I am not going to see the person ever again,” says Schmidt. Now the only thing she still has to do is her final thesis.

As is the case with Sandra Schmidt, most students’ disabilities are not noticed at first glance. In 2011 a survey was conducted by the Deutsche Studentenwerk (Association of German Student Services Organisations). It was entitled beeinträchtigt studieren (Studying for the Impaired) and it interviewed 15,000 disabled and chronically sick students. The survey revealed that two-thirds of these students did not have disabilities that were obvious - unless the students themselves drew attention to their disability. It was only a minority of students whose disability was immediately clear and in these cases it was usually a physical disability. 20 per cent of the those interviewed said that chronic illnesses like tumours, rheumatism and allergies make following a course of study very difficult.

Lecturers play down the effects of depression

The Bachelor’s and Master’s programs that were introduced in the wake of the Bologna reforms are not the main stress factor for Sandra - the vast majority of students who are limited by their health have huge problems with the new, “school-like” character of the courses. According to the survey 70 per cent of those interviewed find it difficult to keep up with the time constraints of the course and the exams, 63 per cent have problems following lectures due to their disability and 60 per cent wrangling with the organisation of the course they selected.

Mental disorders are the most common obstacle to lasting out the course - according to beeinträchtigt studieren this is the case in 45 per cent of those interviewed. “Studying with a mental illness is at the moment the dominant issue,” says Gerd Hansen, professor of rehabilitation didactics at the University of Cologne. The number of mentally impaired students has risen drastically. Many of them suffer from depression, fears, psychosomatic complaints and eating disorders.

Have our universities been de-humanised?

It is these mental illnesses however that university lecturers do not view as a handicap. As a result they are less accommodating towards this group when it comes to offsetting disadvantages, for example, granting more time in an examination or breaks between the exams. “Many of the lecturers are of the opinion that a stable personality should be the prerequisite for studying at university,” explains Hansen. According to the beeinträchtigt studieren survey lecturers are not particularly open to the situation of students suffering from mental strain. They are seldom capable of comprehending the effects of a mental disorder. A student who suffers from severe depression quotes what she was told by her lecturer as follows: “I can’t give you more time for the assignment just because you are feeling sad.”

Changing exam regulations however is not necessarily an act of compassion. “Making life easier for one of these students when it comes to exams and performance is in no way to be seen as a simplification of course content. The specialist demands on the students are not reduced in any way,” says Gerd Hansen. It is more a case of adapting the examination conditions to accommodate the needs of each individual student. This form of exclusion is furthermore against the law - it violates the German constitutional ban on discrimination as well as federal and regional legislation on equal treatment, along with the UN Disability Rights Convention that came into force in 2008.

From an economic point of view it also makes no sense to deprive young people suffering from chronic and mental illness of a university education. This would mean, according to Hansen, that the labour market would have to do without talented and creative minds that would be of benefit to society with their unconventional perspectives.