Monthly Topic 11 Inclusion
"Studentenwerke take into account the special needs of students with children, students with disabilities and foreign students. They promote the compatibility of studies and family."
The Hessian Studentenwerk Law finds the right words for our mission: to ensure that all people can study without discrimination and on an equal footing.
We have achieved a lot since 1971. We take into account a wide variety of dietary habits, offer housing for students with mobility impairments, install guidance systems for visually impaired people, provide childcare and counseling for student parents, and host intercultural events.
At least as much remains to be done on the way to an inclusive everyday campus life. Thinking about inclusion from the very beginning, in services, counseling and construction projects, but of course also in the design of workplaces, is an exciting task for the future.
Graphics: 26th Poster Competition of the Deutsches Studentenwerk (DSW) "Studying with a Disability or Chronic Illness" 2011/2012, with kind permission of the Deutsches Studentenwerk
Julia Thonfeld and her department are responsible for the advisory and student finance services offered by the Studierendenwerk - one of the most important points of contact on campus for many students with disabilities or chronic illness. It's no wonder, then, that the topic of inclusion is on Thonfeld's mind. Together with experts from a state working group of Hessian Studierendenwerke, she launched an inclusion plan in 2019, which will be supplemented by measures taken by the individual student services. The goal is to do more in all areas of the Studierendenwerk to ensure that students with disabilities can study successfully and that the needs of people with disabilities are given greater consideration.
Ms. Thonfeld, how many students with disabilities or chronic illness are we talking about at the University of Kassel?
The last Social Survey identified a proportion of 11 percent nationwide. At the University of Kassel, as many as 15 percent of respondents said they had a health impairment relevant to their studies. But regardless of the number, all students have the right to study without discrimination. As a Studierendenwerk, we have a responsibility in this regard. It is a matter of taking " appropriate measures" that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also calls for in the field of education. To do this, we must first identify the need for action in our own areas of work and address problems. And this is best done in dialog with those affected - if they tell us what we should change, we can take action. In this respect, inclusion is always also a communication task ...
Speaking of communication - can students also contact your team if they need quick support outside of a long-term action plan?
Yes, of course. Inclusion is a key topic in all areas of Advisory Services. We have the necessary expertise here. Whether it's a question of getting BAföG for longer if studies are prolonged for health reasons, or whether individual, situation-related compensation for disadvantages is needed - our professionals in social and student finance counseling in particular are extremely knowledgeable and keep up to date with continuing education. In addition, we are optimally networked. Both with the university and with external counseling institutions.
Is the action plan already bearing fruit?
It is - on a supraregional level as well as on a local level. With the Hessian action plan, we were able to position the topic in the local Studierendenwerke in such a way that inclusion is considered more strongly by all of us. And thanks to our Kassel plan, measures are being implemented here locally step by step to provide practical support for students with disabilities in coping with everyday life. And this is happening in all areas. Door signs with Braille, reserved Mensa tables for guests in wheelchairs, image-based communication in the daycare centers, a barrier-free online menu for the visually impaired are just a few examples of success. The task now is to keep at it and to keep developing and implementing new ideas.
Denise Brandl is studying Social Work at the University of Kassel. After three online semesters, she is now back on campus and completing her study-integrated internship. It's a big adjustment, because Brandl is blind and now has to find her way again.
The fewer hurdles there are to overcome, the better. And not just in the literal sense, when e-scooters become unpredictable trip hazards or guidance systems cater exclusively to sighted people. But also for online information. Denise Brandl was therefore happy to help reorganize the student union's menus in time for the winter semester: "When the needs of blind and visually impaired people are not met or are inadequately met, it becomes extremely difficult and tedious to find relevant information. Often we are then dependent on the support by sighted people, which we would like to do without if at all possible. For people with visual impairments or blindness, it is not a matter of finding a lot of information quickly at a glance. For us, it's essential that this information is easy to find and click on."
Online information, says Brandl, should therefore be as clear as possible. Clear headings, clearly marked links and, if possible, no advertising, she says, would make reading and finding one's way around the pages much easier. There is also work to be done on the Studierendenwerk pages. Denise Brandl is pleased that her tips are welcome here and that she can help identify barriers and, above all: remove them.
Example: Menu of the Zentralmensa canteen in Kassel
The Social Advising Service of the Studierendenwerk Kassel actively contributes to ensuring that studying can succeed even with a disability or chronic illness. Because many students with disabilities neither know that they have a legal right to participate in university nor what that means exactly, one of the central tasks of social counselor Concetta Mugavero and her colleague Mike Pillardy is to inform, encourage and support those affected on their way.
"In 2009, Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also came into force in Germany, and this explicitly recognizes the right to education of people with disabilities," explains Mugavero. Mike Pillardy adds: "In social advising, we therefore encourage and support students in asserting their rights against authorities. No one is at the mercy or charity of anyone!"
In their daily work, the two are not only dealing with visible disabilities. Students often come to the Social Advising Service with conditions that only come up during the counseling process. "Most either don't know they have a claim or they fear being stigmatized," says social advisor Mugavero. But chronic illnesses, such as depression or diabetes, severe allergies as well as visual and speech impairments, can lead to a disability, which in turn can justify claims under the Social Code.
As soon as it is clear what the issue is, the Social Advising Service checks which - primarily financial - support options are available for the student. For example, in the case of disability or chronic illness, an application can be made for an extension of the maximum BAföG funding period. The case of a student with limited mobility is particularly memorable to both of them: Mugavero and Pillardy achieved that he was able to successfully complete his studies in part because his daily trip to campus by cab was financed. "The power of applications," Pillardy enthuses.
In our childcare centers, we use METACOM symbols to overcome language barriers and promote language development. Instantly recognizable and memorable symbols with thick outlines and clear colors make it easier for children and adults to communicate when words are missing.
Graphics courtesy of METACOM Symbols © Annette Kitzinger
Silke Rudolf is head of the human resources department at the Studierendenwerk. From her daily work, she knows how important inclusion work is for a company. After all, severely disabled people are just as willing to perform at work as others when they receive individual support.
The Inclusion Action Plan of the Studierendenwerk Kassel not only refers to students, but also to employees. Aren't there already sufficient legal requirements for this? What is the need for a plan?
Legal standards set minimum standards. As an employer under public law with a role model function, we want to set the course beyond these minimum standards in order to be able to offer attractive jobs.
How many employees with disabilities are there in the Studierendenwerk?
If you add up all the people with disabilities who work for us, there are 28. This includes mainly severely disabled people with a degree of disability of at least 50, but also those who have a lower degree of disability and are partially treated the same as severely disabled people.
Are these impairments always immediately recognizable?
No, especially in the area of mental illness, this is usually not visible or noticeable. Sometimes a disability doesn't affect the work at all. You really have to look at the situation of each individual employee. Does one need support to be able to work on an equal footing? What can we do for them as a company? These are questions that we can only answer in a constructive and trusting dialog with the employees. Establishing this relationship of trust, often with the support of our representatives for the severely disabled, is the basis of all inclusion work.
For 33 years Andreas Jähn has been working for the Studierendenwerk Kassel. Due to an accident, he was handicapped, switched from kitchen to office and fought his way back into (professional) life.
In 1988 Andreas Jähn joined the Studierendenwerk Kassel and worked as a cook in the Moritz restaurant as well as in the Zentralmensa for 18 years. Through no fault of his own a motorcycle accident suddenly tuned his life upside down: Jähn was lucky, he survived, but due to severe nerve damage he wasn’t able to properly use his right arm anymore. Suddenly handicapped Jähn had to start over – at the age of 45. Until now he characterizes his diagnosis as a serious shock: “Cooking has always been what I enjoyed and what I wanted to do”, says the family man. With only one functional arm, however, it was pretty clear that he would never more work in a kitchen.
It took almost two years until Jähn was ready to work again. At first he had difficulties to find a new role, but he kept going and fought. After a retraining to become an office clerk he eventually started working in the Studierendenwerk administration – first in the Human Resources Department, responsible for temporary kitchen staff, occupational safety and quality management, later in the Department of Advisory and Financing Services , responsible for Funding under the Upgrading Training Assistance Act (AFBG). A huge change, but Jähn is a fast learner. “Fortunately, Google already existed back then”, says the man from Kassel with a wink. Of course, it was also helpful that his new workplace was completely customized for his needs: Jähn makes phone calls using a headset, using voice control he can operate the phone, give commands to his computer and dictate texts.
His greatest passion is bicycling. “As soon as I could get out of the wheelchair, I got on my mountain bike”, tells Jähn, not without pride. Till this day the 59-year-old rides his bike to work every day - unless it snows, because then he can hardly handle the bike, says Jähn. In 2012, together with a frame builder from Aschaffenburg, he designed a bike that was completely tailored to his needs. Above all, it is important to have a sitting position that relieves his arms. Shifting gears is done with the healthy arm and the brakes can be operated with the handicapped hand. In 2020, Jähn mastered the Stilfser Joch, the second highest paved mountain pass in the Alps, with his custom-made bike.
That his handicap is hardly noticeable, Jähn also recognize at work, for example when colleagues ask, whether he can assist in unpacking boxes. “That’s not possible, of course”, he laughs. When asked how he made it back to life, Jähn replies: “I don’t give up and always want to be self-determined”, then he thinks a little and adds: “Besides, I’ve never lost my courage, even if it was tough sometimes!”
Left Photo: Andreas Jähn today, right photo: Andreas Jähn in the early nineties
Detlef Heinemann is one of the most important contacts for his colleagues with disabilities. Together with his colleague Nicole von Schumann, he represents the interests of severely disabled people in the Studierendenwerk.
What does your work mean to you? Why do you get involved with your colleagues?
Many people who live with a disability find it difficult to gain a foothold in working life. Most of them really want to pursue their profession. But sometimes they need help in this. And that's what I'm here for as a representative for the severely disabled. I answer questions, encourage people and listen to their concerns, big and small. Most of all, I am pleased when my support is effective.
What are your most important tasks?
It's often a matter of giving careful advice on rights and options. I also help when applications have to be made. And of course my colleague or I take part in job interviews when people with severe disabilities apply. In general, we make sure throughout the application process that no one is discriminated against because of a disability.
What do you wish for the future - how could the Studierendenwerk take even better account of the needs of severely disabled people?
You can always do better. You have to be open and continue to work on the issue. But that's what everyone does here. We do what we can - in good cooperation with all the responsible departments in the Studierendenwerk.
Barriers lurk everywhere: high curbs and steps, cobblestones or stairs are usually no problem for healthy people, but can become insurmountable obstacles for students with limited mobility who, for example, rely on a wheelchair or crutches. Identifying and gradually removing such obstacles, both in and in front of the Studierendenwerk buildings, is an important matter for the Student Housing, Building and Property Management department.
For example, the student hall at Wolfhager Straße 10, which is currently being modernized and should be ready for occupancy by 2022 at the latest, will be the Studierendenwerk Kassel's most barrier-free and at the same time handicapped-accessible building to date. In addition to ground-level access and barrier-free elevator access to all floors, the new student hall will also have a handicapped-accessible room and a barrier-free kitchen area. This means that in future, students who are dependent on a wheelchair will also be able to live in this house and cook together with other tenants.
Further barriers will be removed by taking into account the needs of blind and visually impaired students when planning the modernized building. It is already certain that the building's signage will also be in Braille (Braille for the blind), and that all staircases will be equipped with special step markings for visually impaired people. For further measures, Studierendenwerk Kassel will also seek advice from experts in barrier-free construction.
The fact that the Studierendenwerk Kassel has also considered accessibility in the past is shown by the fact that there are already twelve barrier-free rooms across the student halls. In addition, central buildings - such as the Mensas and cafeterias - have long been accessible without barriers via ramps or ground-level access. In many cases, particularly heavy doors can be opened by pushbutton, there are automatic doors, and wherever stairs or steep inclines were an obstacle, elevators were included in the design of new buildings or retrofitted later. For example, during the modernization of the student hall at Wolfhager Straße 12A, all floors were made accessible via an elevator.