The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in school closures across the world and in the adoption of distance learning. Students with disabilities are amongst those facing the biggest obstacles, as the specific support and teaching tools they require are not always available in distance and online learning.
The University of Padua (Italy), host institution of the UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Democracy and Peace, has taken specific measures in order to address their needs and ensure access of students with disabilities to online teaching and other services.
In this interview, Professor Laura Nota, deputy Rector for Inclusion and Disabilities and lecturer in psychological counselling for the inclusion of disabilities and social discomfort at the University of Padua, tells us more about these inclusive measures.
How are lecturers taking into account the needs of students with hearing and visual impairments in the preparation of their online classes?
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the Inclusion Unit of the University of Padua has expanded its online services, including specific support related to online teaching for students with all kind of vulnerabilities. For instance, students with hearing impairment can benefit from the online stenotype service, which consists of the transcription of both synchronous and asynchronous lectures, that allows them to easily follow their courses. As far as they are concerned, the Inclusion Unit has contacted students with visual impairment to inform them about the special services put in place. The University "Inclusive Tutoring Service" has been made available online to provide support throughout the preparation of exams.
Did the university elaborate guidelines to address the needs of persons with hearing disabilities? Was there any other – broader or specific – guidance developed?
As soon as the emergency period started, some user-friendly tutorials on the use of online platforms were made available by the Digital Learning and Multimedia Office of the University. Similarly, the Inclusion Unit developed specific guidelines on how to prepare digital documents accessible to every student, including those with disabilities. The Rector of Padua University called on all lecturers to do their utmost to take the guidelines into consideration to ensure the accessibility of every student to online courses.
The Inclusion Unit has been collaborating with all the lecturers whose courses require a stenotype service, to ensure that students with hearing impairment can access this service online.
More generally, the academic staff of the University of Padova has been very active in the framework of the “Teaching4Learning” initiative which aims at facilitating continuous peer-to-peer support, sharing experiences and discussing challenges related to online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The University of Padua is developing, together with the University of Turin, new accessibility guidelines for the elaboration of online admission tests for persons with disabilities, especially students with visual impairment and learning disorders.
How many students have already benefited or are expected to benefit from these measures?
Between 9 March and 23 April 2020, the Inclusion Unit provided 234 stenotype services for a total of 335 hours of teaching. At the same time, the Unit held 24 online meetings with future and current students with disabilities or learning difficulties and received about 20 requests for personalized exams. In addition, the inclusive tutoring service has been activated for 19 students.
Regarding the admission tests for the 2020/2021 academic year, the Inclusion Unit is expected to receive more than 300 requests for personalized tests.
What is the role of the UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Democracy and Peace regarding these measures?
The Chair participates in the interdisciplinary group of the University of Padua developing a project on the promotion of an inclusive learning environment that ensures equal opportunities for students with disabilities. With the student community of the University of Padua becoming increasingly diverse, the project aspires to adapt teaching to the students’ needs and make it more inclusive.
In particular, the project aims to:
- increase lecturers’ knowledge in relation to disabilities and difficult health conditions. The university created an online platform through which the lecturers have access to: videos and other digital materials on the value of inclusive teaching and inclusive learning contexts; experts’ advice on learning disorders and disabilities and the description of relevant University services; the first-hand experience at University of students with disability or learning disorders.
- encourage lecturers to reflect on their educational practices and on how to make them more inclusive through the adoption of specific measures tailored to the needs of students such as personalized teaching and exams. Similarly, the lecturers will be urged to involve students in educational activities, to promote attitudes of fairness, inclusion, and to uphold human rights and social sustainability.
- establish university networks on inclusive learning that bring together lecturers, technical-administrative staff, and students.
- sustain the General Course (GC) “Human Rights and Inclusion” accessible to bachelor’s and Master’s Degree students. The GC is aimed to increase awareness about diversity present within our social fabric and about human rights, as well as to stress the need to invest in an inclusive society. The GC was launched four years ago within the bachelor’s degree Course “Political Sciences, International Relations and Human Rights” directed by the UNESCO Chair holder. This year the GC, held in telematic mode, was attended by over 430 students.
Pilot actions to test the effectiveness of these measures have been started in online mode.
Professor Laura Nota works at the department of Philosophy, Sociology, Pedagogy and Applied Psychology at the University of Padova, which she joined in 2000. Her research focuses notably on the psychology of disabilities and inclusion and the psychology of orientation. Since January 2020 she co-coordinates the working group ‘Inclusion and Social Justice’ within the Network of Universities for Sustainable Development.
- Universities tackle the impact of COVID-19 on disadvantaged students
- Fostering Rights, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination
- COVID-19 - Protect human health and dignity, respect universal values
Cooperation between UNESCO and its Chairs dealing with human rights and social inclusion stems from the need to better understand the social impact of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable, and the mitigating measures adopted so far.
This article was prepared with inputs from the UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Democracy and Peace in the University of Padua (Italy).