Co-funded by the Erasmus+ Program of the European Union
Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the National Agency. Neither the European Union nor National Agency can be held responsible for them.

Introducing a “novel” scenario: educational opportunities for students with disabilities and specific learning differences (SLD) in Higher Education.

For a while now, the world of academia has been confronted with a “novel” landscape. We use brackets because it is novel just in relative terms and it is rooted in a long history of successes and failures of a few students. The number of university students with disabilities and specific learning disorders (SLD) is now increasing sharply in all the countries of the European Union. Data indicates that, depending on the country, they represent between 2% and 5% of the university student population. Of this share of students, a large proportion (between 60 and 70%) is made up of specific learning disorders, the remainder by students with disabilities with, generally, motor, sensory (visual and hearing), neurological, psychological impairments.

European directives, as well as those of individual countries, stress the need to seriously address the specific training and teaching needs of this population of students, to aim at their educational success and social inclusion. Before diving into the reasons for this growth in numbers, it is necessary to make one point clear: those specific conditions of disability and SLDs are absolutely compatible with quality university courses without a lack of adequate preparation in all disciplines, i.e., without the didactics and the role of teachers being debased and simplified. Those same conditions are also compatible with study experiences abroad (Erasmus), internships and training workshops.

The Third Nation in the World

The presence of a growing number of university students with disabilities and SLDs is linked to a few factors, both social and educational. First, the growing presence of people with disabilities within our societies. In the contemporary world, the factors and causes that produce disabilities are multiple, heterogeneous, and unexpected compared to the past. It is now a phenomenon that cuts across the various social classes: disability has become democratized, affecting heterogeneous social classes that are different from those historically more exposed to the causal factors that produce it (such as working class being more exposed to accidents at work, poor hygiene, food). To underline the numerical and social impact that produce disability today, as well as the factors involved, it can be said that, put all together, people with disabilities would populate the third largest nation in the world with fewer inhabitants than only China and India. In fact, there are about 1 billion worldwide. Of course, the figure varies from country to country. Considering that between 10% and 15% of the population of each country are people with disabilities is an approximation, but not far from reality.

Specific learning disorders have less certain overall data. They are not considered, strictly speaking, a form of disability, but a condition that requires special arrangements in terms of teaching, the transmission of knowledge and the acquisition of learning. Even the reasons for the explosion of SLD cases are no longer specifically known. Certainly, diagnostic criteria have been refined, which, compared to the past, make it possible to identify more cases of students with specific conditions that go by the names of dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dysorthographia. The diagnosis of these conditions should be made in the early years of primary school, although cases of diagnosis during adolescence are not uncommon.

The presence of this large population can be found in the school world. The fact that students with such characteristics reach Higher Education means both that good teaching - or inclusive teaching - work was done in the previous cycles of education, and that their specific characteristics permit a career in HE. Moreover, a large proportion of these students often take and pass entrance tests in order to gain access to university courses, alongside students without disabilities and SLDs.

Defining Disability

Starting in 2003, the European Year of People with Disabilities, the European Union has embraced the goal of encouraging and supporting the inclusion of students with disabilities and SLDs in schools, including universities, in a more comprehensive and concrete manner. In this regard, a European non-governmental structure was established, the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education (, which emphasizes both the need for inclusive education in all school orders, including Higher Education, and the fact that universities are research poles for identifying strategies, learning and inclusion teaching methods for university students themselves.

Attention to this student population is commensurate not only with their actual presence and the ethical imperative to favor their inclusion (otherwise we ould be facing discrimination), but with a new vision of disability built up over the last forty years and now also present in international reference documents published at the beginning of the new millennium and ratified or introduced in all the countries of the European Union: 1. The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF 2001), a World Health Organisation document; 2. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD 2006).

These two documents, which have seen a long elaboration by numerous experts with different cultures and competences, have different matrices.

  • ICF is a device that adopts a bio-psycho-social approach that intends to 'measure', through a complex and articulated set of criteria and indicators, the personal characteristics of all persons (including those with disabilities) in order to provide appropriate responses to those specific characteristics in different contexts, including educational ones;
  • CRPD is a United Nations declaration that does not introduce specific rights for persons with disabilities but defines these persons as "part of human diversity" and defines them as already and fully entitled to all human rights, including those of education and lifelong learning. For countries that have ratified the CRPD, this constitutes national law.

Disability Models

Both these documents adopt an approach and definition called the social model of disability. According to this approach, it is necessary to focus not just on impairments (disabilities or SLDs) - which by the way exist, are objective and are part of individuals - but on the contexts and relationships in which these individuals find themselves. This way, the necessary measures can be put in place so that, with their characteristics, those people can participate, express themselves, exercise their entitlement to fundamental human rights and, therefore, also educate themselves.

This approach is opposed to the so-called medical model and its logic, according to which the impossible, and objective, non-ordinary nature of the disabled person produces a specific social condition, which is inevitable because it is motivated by a biological fact that moves the causal chain. According to the social model, these dynamics produce social injustice. Considering disability as a human characteristic (moreover induced by social processes), people must be included, participate, self-determine. Without denying the presence of impairments, the social model splits the causal relationship between biological fact and social experience. According to this reading, it is the social context that, because of and in combination with impairments, produces disadvantage, non-inclusion.

Article 1 of the CRPD, which defines who persons with disabilities are, is very clear in this sense:

“Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.

The central element of this definition is the part highlighted in bold: in interaction with barriers of a different nature. Otherwise, behavior is adopted that discriminates, makes personal characteristics (disability and SLDs) count as an opportunity for debasement, and for missing social and human opportunities.

The CRPD itself advocates the need for people with disabilities to

“an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning” (art. 24).

What to do for students with disabilities and SLDs

The prescriptions we have seen so far, which are not just an imposition of legislation, but an ethical and social approach aimed at participation, at the valorization of each individual, at the possibility of constructing a suitable study and cultural pathway, impose a serious rethinking of the ways in which knowledge is taught and transmitted.

It is a matter of making a decisive shift from teaching to learning. That is, it is not a question of changing the teaching and its contents, of giving facilities to students with disabilities and SLDs, but of making the contents and teaching available to all students, including those with disabilities and SLDs who require different ordinary learning methods, strategies and teaching solutions. We do not change the contents and learning objectives of individual subjects, but make them usable and accessible for those with specific characteristics.

This involves, in particular:

  • Promoting the accessibility for all students of lectures, materials for studying and preparing for examinations (texts, articles, books, slides, videos, etc.), specific examination and paper production methods;
  • Increase and improve services and technological equipment for students with disabilities and SLDs;
  • Define strategies to support learning and the expression of one's abilities and skills.

Individualization and Personalization

Of course, all this cannot be done simply from a technical point of view, but is based on genuine human and professional relationships between teachers and learners. A first element to be considered is the distinction between individualization and personalization.

By individualization is meant the degree to which education is adapted to the characteristics of the students, to the extent to which each of them is enabled to acquire specific subject-specific skills. It is a formative principle that requires constant concern for the individual undergoing training and attention to his or her specific characteristics. It is a matter of adopting the guiding criterion whereby every training action must satisfy the fact that it has been conceived in accordance with the student's characteristics. Individualization, in a strict sense, refers to the teaching strategies that aim to ensure that all students achieve the fundamental competences of the discipline, through a diversification of teaching paths.

Personalization, on the other hand, indicates the teaching strategies aimed at guaranteeing each student their own form of cognitive excellence, through elective possibilities to cultivate their intellectual potential.

Individualization aims at ensuring that certain goals are achieved by everyone.

Personalization is also aimed at ensuring that everyone develops their own personal talents. In the former the goals are common for all, in the latter the goal is different for each individual.

© 2024 InDO. All rights reserved.