Here SEN will refer to those areas under protection of the Irish Special Educational Needs Act (2004) and will be considered in two branches; physical impairment, and sensory, mental and learning difficulty. The latter category includes common learning difficulties such as Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, audio and visual processing difficulties, Executive Functioning Deficits and ADD/ADHD. In the US SEN is commonly referred to as Learning Difficulties (LD) and SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) in the UK. Similar to the Irish Act, students with LD are protected in the USA by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974 and the Americans with Disabilities Act and in the UK, they are protected by the 2010 Equality Act. The United Nations International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) has required most nations to pass similar laws for the protection of all persons with SEN. Perhaps one reason that 3rd level institutions have lagged behind the primary and secondary education sectors in providing support for students with SEN has been the prioritisation of children by the UN Convention (Articles 7, 9 and 24). While Article 24 stipulates that governments must ensure an inclusive education at all levels, the provision of such for free at primary and 2nd level has required massive planning and expenditure and as a result has been the primary focus for most nations. The Convention is less explicit on the requirements of governments in relation to 3rd level in regard to financing of SEN students. It merely states that nations are expected to provide an inclusive and equal experience for all students. Regardless of the financial commitments of governments to supporting students with SEN at 3rd level, there are some practical and low-cost steps that all universities can take.
1. Know your SEN Needs and Crisis Areas
Many universities are not well positioned to support students at the diagnostic phase. Because of large numbers of students, impersonal lecture hall classes and lecturers who are subject specialists but not necessarily pedagogists, university is significantly more impersonal than second level. While students with a diagnosis prior to entering university will most likely benefit from assistance in the way of technology or personal assistance, 1st year drop-out rates for all students (in Ireland the national average of non-return of 1st year students is 11%) are high and so it is likely that most SEN students without diagnosis will end up dropping out. It is extremely difficult to provide diagnosis for SEN at 3rd level, but there is an increasing emphasis in most universities on providing all teaching staff with a basic introduction to pedagogical methods. Any SEN unit should position itself as a central part of this movement providing lecturers across the university with practical skills to identify potential SEN students and provide referral.
2. Make Contact, Keep in Contact
The greatest challenge that a SEN unit will face is keeping in regular enough contact with students to monitor progress and provide support. The ratio of support staff to SEN students will most likely be quite low so it is important to create alternative channels of communication. A very simple means of keeping in touch and keeping students informed of important information is to create a group chat (#) on Twitter or to set up a (or multiple) WhatsApp group chat. These can become places for sharing information, providing feedback, establishing social networks and promoting advocacy.
Another means of supporting SEN students that will benefit their peers also is to engage with the university’s online learning programmes. Because most lecturers now provide lecture slides, reading lists, presentations etc. online in support of their lectures, it would not be a great leap to providing parallel online courses through the university’s LMS (Moodle etc.). Departments, working with LMS representatives and SEN liaisons, could create online courses that are flexible, remote and inclusive of all students at the university. Aside from students with serious physical disabilities who cannot be on campus or for whom it is financially impossible, working students, mature students, parents of small children etc. all benefit from the flexibility this brings. Again, this is a system that is a priority for most 3rd level institutions and would not cost a SEN unit any extra money.
3. Be Sensitive
The cost-effective and all-inclusive approach is for universities to move away from large lecture hall classes where possible and instead replace them with small seminar groups with a focus on Project-Based Learning (PBL). This approach is good for all students as I discuss in this article but it is particularly useful for students with serious physical disabilities because classrooms are generally more accessible – and thus require no financial outlay to remodel –and by having students use tables the wheelchair user is not physically set apart from his peers and the impact of his SEN is minimalised. Importantly, the use of a PBL approach to teaching and learning also encourages social and academic contact between all students and so provides a greater likelihood that SEN students will not be (or feel) excluded.
It is important that SEN students are given tailored orientation visits to their university. Obviously this is best done again in a manner that will not make students feel set apart from their peers. If a SEN unit feels that it is useful to do a SEN-specific orientation then it is best that this happens before term or during a period when students will not feel “paraded” in front of their peers. A useful alternative is for the SEN unit to prepare audio-visual presentations about the campus and SEN services via YouTube for students and send this out ahead of time so that when students come to the university for the first time they do not feel reliant upon someone to show them around but feel comfortable exploring for themselves. Essentially they will then only have to contact the SEN department when a problem arises or for extra assistance. This can then be managed discreetly on an individual basis. Again, this is a useful option for all students. While traditional orientations are practical and provide a very early means of making social connections, they are often quite poorly attended. By flipping it and giving students virtual tours in advance, a greater number of the entire student population is served. An exciting possibility in this direction is the rise of Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. It is already possible to provide all university students with an immersive and authentic campus tour experience without even having to leave the comfort of their own sitting-room as Donal O’Reilly explains below.
In short, providing an inclusive environment for SEN students need not be a costly or revolutionary affair. What is crucial, though, is to establish an SEN unit and manage a combination of smart technology and individualised contact with students effectively.