Disabling university environments

Dr. Armineh Soorenian

The difficulties experienced by disabled and by international students (as two separate groups) in participating in a university context has been well documented. However, there is far less evidence about the unique double or multiple barriers disabled international students encounter when studying in the UK. In this article, Armineh outlines her own investigations into this issue.

The study
I conducted a focus group and semi-structured interviews with 30 disabled international students in British universities. I assessed the barriers they faced based on their multiple identities as 'disabled', 'international' and sometimes 'mature'; and how some of these barriers were reinforced and exacerbated through the interplay of the students' varied identities. Below are some findings:

Information
The provision of inaccessible (e.g. small print) and inappropriate (e.g. general and irrelevant) information was the first obstacle in the participants' university experience. This limited their choices of suitable British higher education institutions, and increased their anxiety related to being both a disabled and an international student in a new country.

Disability services
Disabled international students did not know how to disclose their impairments in a different cultural and linguistic context. They were not aware of the benefits of doing so, and worried about the negative effects of such disclosure. Many managed without support (e.g. five participants relied on informal support from friends, which at times proved to be problematic).

Learning and teaching
There were difficulties accessing lecture/seminar settings and taught material. Mostly such barriers applied to all disabled students, regardless of nationality.

Social life
Many participants were isolated due to inaccessible social venues and a lack of activities compatible with their cultural and linguistic backgrounds. This was often compounded by age-related issues affecting disabled, mature international students' participation in social life. Most social activities were aimed at non-disabled, young, undergraduate domestic students. Consequently, disabled mature international students felt discriminated against on different levels in most university social events.

Recommendations
I proposed a list of recommendations to make the university environment accessible and inclusive for 'all'. These recommendations sought to help disabled international students have a university experience more equal to that of their nondisabled international and disabled domestic counterparts.

I recommended that universities must provide accessible and specific information, both pre and post arrival, on a range of student services. This must describe how to disclose different impairments, and the benefits of doing so. It must also list the range of support services available.

Insights in the field of inclusive education can be used by a range of educational organisations to assist in adopting an inclusive culture. My investigation has direct ramifications for a much more diverse array of students from varied minority backgrounds, all of whom would benefit from inclusive practices in education.

Armineh completed her PhD in Disability Studies in the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds in 2011. She has multiple impairments and studied at a British university as an international student from Iran. Her research was informed and enriched by her first-hand experience.

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