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Towards disability inclusive university pedagogy


Hisayo Katsui, Associate Professor, Disability Studies, University of Helsinki


Nobody has ever asked me whether or not I needed reasonable accommodation.

This was the reaction of a student on my disability studies course, intended for Master students, in 2014. In that year, disability studies was launched as a minor subject at the University of Helsinki, the first study of its kind in the whole of Finland, under the leadership of a newly appointed professor of disability studies. The Finnish disability movement had raised funds and donated them to the University in order to establish this long missing subject in Finnish academia. The time was ripe, as the world had entered into the era of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006 (United Nations, 2006). At the time, Finland was implementing domestic, institutional and legal changes to comply with the Convention prior to its ratification. Thus, it was fitting for disability studies to be launched at the very university where the late Kalle Könkkölä studied and founded the Finnish disability movement together with other students with disabilities.

Before my courses begin, I send my registered students an email asking whether there are any disability-related needs that they wish me to accommodate. The students are not obliged to report their disabilities to me or anybody else in Finland. On the contrary, the Personal Data Act (523/1999) prohibits institutions from requiring such information. Thus, I carefully ask this question and package the message well so that the students understand that disclosure is voluntary. The reaction of the student with disability quoted at the beginning of this article was far from exceptional. Every time I teach my course, a few students with disabilities spontaneously react in a similar way. They too are similarly surprised to be asked the question. Why, then, do university teachers fail to ask them about this very fundamental human rights question pertaining to reasonable accommodation? In this article, I problematize the phenomenon and analyse our academic system from a critical disability perspective. As disability studies is an academic discipline that strives for both academic and social impact (Suomen Vammaistutkimuksen Seura, 2020), I propose that we, university teachers, reflect on our current practice, learn from the lessons of the past, and take the necessary steps to improve the situation for students with disabilities.

Reasonable accommodation in the practice of university teaching

Reasonable accommodation is stipulated in the aforementioned United Nations Convention, which was ratified by the Finnish government in 2016 and thus is a legally binding instrument. Reasonable accommodation means ‘necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms’ (Article 2 of the Convention, United Nations, 2006). Denial of reasonable accommodation is therefore a human rights violation (Katsui & Chalklen, 2020).

In the university teaching practice, reasonable accommodation has meant, for instance, providing lecture materials in advance for sign language interpreters and students with visual disabilities, extending assignment deadlines for students with physical disabilities and for those with visual disabilities who require more time for reading and/or writing, providing alternative assignments to those with mental health conditions, orally articulating visual materials during the lectures, equipping podiums with ramps or lecture rooms with a hearing loop, and installing two screens at the front of the room (one for PowerPoint slides and the other for simultaneous captioning) when welcoming a guest lecturer with hearing disabilities, to name a few. As mentioned in the Introduction, I directly ask students and guest lecturers with disabilities how we can decide reasonable ways to accommodate their needs, as they usually have their own creative solutions. These are all easy adjustments and do not constitute an ‘undue burden’.

Nevertheless, students, researchers and teachers with disabilities are too seldom asked the questions pertaining to reasonable accommodation in a university setting. Moreover, the university system has failed to keep abreast of changes in the wider world. For instance, when booking a lecture room for my courses, I always ask for an accessible room. However, the internal university premise booking system often fails to provide information on the physical accessibility of the podium, information accessibility or the possibility for students to select where to sit (see Villa & Kivisalmi, 2016). Another more relevant issue for this particular journal is the lack of disability inclusion aspect in the university pedagogy teaching. In the five basic Finnish university pedagogy courses, which I have completed, disability inclusive pedagogy is virtually non-existent. When at least 15% of the world’s population comprises persons with disabilities (WHO & The World Bank, 2011) and when both Article 24 of the United Nations Convention (2006) and the Constitution of Finland (1999) stipulate the equal rights of pupils with and without disabilities as part of high-quality education, this status quo in university pedagogy teaching highlights our lack of essential pedagogical skills in disability inclusion. The University of Helsinki’s new strategy for 2021–2030 includes the goal of making the university inclusive for all. Equality and non-discrimination in a higher education is nevertheless impossible without genuinely including staff and students with disabilities and accommodating their needs. Because universities have various barriers, such as inaccessible premises and lack of information to certain groups of persons with disabilities, reasonable accommodation in the form of inclusive education becomes crucial.

In 2018, the Finnish Disability Forum commissioned a survey (Vesala & Vartio, 2018, 16) on the experiences of persons with disabilities in Finland. According to the report, 10.6 % (N=152) of the respondents answered that they had encountered discrimination related to reasonable accommodation in education during the last two years. In another survey by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (Hoffrén, 2017, 43), 35.7% (N=202) of respondents considered that reasonable accommodation in education was badly realised. When it comes to higher education students, 28% of students have some form of limited functions or health conditions in the Finnish higher education, 30% of whom experienced lack of support from their higher education institutions and society (Potila, Moisio, Ahti-Miettinen, Pyy-Martikainen & Virtanen, 2017). These results are alarming, as even one case is a violation of human rights.

Concluding remarks: the latest development and ways forward

The mental health conditions of university community members, especially students, had been a concern even before the COVID-19 pandemic (Käkelä, 2016), as the neoliberal principles of efficiency and ableism have been pressuring academia (see McRuer, 2006). The impact of the pandemic, such as lock-downs and distance learning, is likely to have affected the mental health of many more of us within the university community (see Son, Hedge, Smith, Wang & Sasangohar, 2020). That is, university students have always had and will have diverse needs, which has to be recognised as a starting point of university pedagogy. Today, when an increasing number of university community members have diverse conditions, it is high time we challenge ourselves, learn from the lessons of the past, and urge ourselves to act accordingly. That is, we require more radical and deliberate efforts to make our teaching inclusive and accessible from the onset.

The EU Web Accessibility Directive (Directive (EU) 2016/2102) and the Finnish Act on the Provision of Digital Services (2019) have entered into force at the Finnish universities. From 23rd September 2020 onwards, universities must comply with the requirements of accessibility. The enactment of this legislation coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, when teaching was forced online. In these peculiar circumstance, reasonable accommodation and accessibility measures have finally become a timely topic not only for persons with disabilities but also for all of us to pay attention to. This ownership to consider reasonable accommodation and accessibility as our issues has to be strengthened. When teachings are pedagogically well-planned to meet diverse needs from the onset, for instance with clear oral and written instruction and alternative ways of achieving the set goal, teachings become more inclusive and accessible for many students.

In the university settings, more guidelines and institutional mechanisms have recently been developed to promote disability inclusion, including a guidance on special arrangements (University of Helsinki, 2020), the OHO-opas (‘OHO-guide’) (Klemola, Ikäheimo & Hämäläinen, 2019) and saavutettavuuskriteeristö (‘Accessibility criteria’) (OHO! Hanke, 2019). The University of Helsinki recently changed the guideline from ‘special arrangement’ into ‘individualised arrangement’. What is required, however, is adoption of the concept of reasonable accommodation as an entitlement of academic community members with disabilities. Disability advisors and/or equality advisors and their working groups can play a bigger role in implementing these guidelines and making the university environment inclusive and accessible. For instance, the Equality and Diversity Committee of the University of Helsinki decided to focus on disability inclusion in 2022.

The legal change, new guidelines and good will of some faculty members are indeed tangible development but simply not enough. More institutional support is needed so that teachers are not any longer left alone to make teachings inclusive and accessible, when many students with diverse needs continue to struggle in the university system. I conclude this article by arguing that university pedagogy teaching should systematically include the critical disability perspective in its teaching curriculum at the very basic level so that disability inclusion and accessibility become an integral part of our higher education system in all of our teaching.


Timo Valtonen, Equality Advisor of the University of Helsinki, kindly provided helpful comments on a draft version to improve the quality of this article. I am grateful for his insights and support.

Declaration of interest statement

The author has no conflicts of interests.


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