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Panel Discussion «Studying and Working with Disabilities»

Studying without Barriers

In a panel discussion at UZH on the topic of studying and working with disabilities, the kinds of everyday difficulties disabled students face were brought out in the open. The Executive Board of the University – represented by Vice President Gabriele Siegert – promised that specific measures would be implemented quickly.
Marita Fuchs


Discussing on the podium (f.l.t.r.): Luana Schena, board member of the Swiss Federation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (SBV-FSA) and member of the Academic Disability Commission at UZH, Laura Galli, VSUZH representative on the Academic Disability Commission, Gabriele Siegert, Deputy President and Vice President Education and Student Affairs, Benjamin Börner, head of the UZH Disability Office – with moderator Marina Villa. (Picture: Priska Feichter)

What measures is UZH currently taking to ensure inclusion and equal opportunities for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses? Where do barriers still exist, and how can they be effectively removed? And how important is the topic of inclusion at UZH? These and other questions were addressed at a lively and well-attended panel discussion held at UZH last Friday.

The event was organized in response to ongoing discussions about whether the Executive Board of the University is committed enough to ensuring the rights and addressing the concerns of students with disabilities. Students and disability organizations had previously expressed doubts about the Executive Board’s willingness to engage in dialogue. Against this backdrop, some of those present in the main lecture hall expressed their dissatisfaction by standing up and turning their backs during the UZH President’s opening address. President Michael Schaepman reminded the audience that at UZH everyone has the right to express their views and encouraged them to use that right, and also reaffirmed his personal commitment to accessibility and inclusion: “We have to show that UZH is also capable of pragmatically and effectively implementing measures.”

Schaepman conceded that UZH had not yet responded consistently enough to the needs and rights of those affected, and said he could therefore well comprehend their frustration. He also referred to the strategic project called UZH Accessible and stressed that UZH was firmly committed to creating an inclusive and barrier-free learning environment in which all students have equal opportunities. Since January 2024, the accessibility project has been working on identifying and removing existing barriers – initially physical obstacles in and around buildings, and then barriers in the areas of infrastructure, technology and teaching materials as well as in the organization and culture of the university.

On the panel to discuss these topics were Luana Schena, board member of the Swiss Federation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (SBV-FSA) and member of the Academic Disability Commission at UZH, Laura Galli, VSUZH representative on the Academic Disability Commission, Gabriele Siegert, Deputy President and Vice President Education and Student Affairs, and Benjamin Börner, head of the UZH Disability Office. The discussion was chaired by Marina Villa.

Examining barriers in buildings

Disabled students face various obstacles or difficulties on UZH premises. Gabriele Siegert noted that the situation in some UZH buildings was particularly challenging due to their listed status. Nevertheless, UZH was trying to implement initial measures as quickly as possible, as even in new buildings there was room for improvement. In one of the cafeterias, for example, it turned out that the lighting was very disturbing for people with visual impairments, which those responsible had not realized before the lighting was installed.

Assessments are now being carried out in 74 university buildings to check for hindrances affecting people with disabilities – whether they have motor impairments, sensory issues or neurodivergence. It should then be possible to make some improvements quickly, said Gabriele Siegert. The panel and the audience unanimously agreed on one point: the people affected should be involved in the planning of infrastructure projects at an early stage, to avoid having to change things later on. Above all, it is important to take into account the many different types of impairments and at the same time to keep the needs of all students in mind.

Digitalization – podcasts for all compulsory courses

For many disabled students, digital tools are useful. But digital accessibility does not yet exist at UZH, said Luana Schena and Laura Galli. Luana Schena is visually impaired and noted that lecture slides on the OLAT online platform were often only accessible as PDF files that could not be read by text-to-voice programs and also sometimes contained illustrations without alt text. In addition, documents were frequently uploaded only a short time ahead of the class, too late for the affected students to make use of them. For Schena, podcasts (recordings of lectures) are very helpful because she can fast-forward and rewind in order to really get to grips with the material. Laura Galli also stressed the importance of captions for students with hearing or visual impairments, and pointed out that teaching materials should be compatible with speech output devices. Currently, not all teaching staff think of these things when preparing their courses. 

This year, the university will investigate how to improve OLAT in terms of accessibility, said Benjamin Börner. However, teaching staff must also have the skills and the willingness to prepare their teaching materials appropriately. Doing so would certainly entail additional work for the 7,000 teaching staff at UZH, cautioned Gabriele Siegert. But, she said, UZH was working on measures to make it as easy as possible for staff, for example by providing checklists. According to the Vice President, the Executive Board of the University is keen to encourage digital teaching methods, but at the same time must take into account the needs and rights of the teaching staff. UZH remains an in-person, on-site university, she stressed. There was a consensus among the panel and in the audience that accessible materials should at least be made available for all compulsory courses.

Changing the mindset

The third topic addressed was how to simplify administrative processes. One such process is the granting of accommodations to counter the disadvantages of a disability or illness: students with a medically diagnosed impairment are legally entitled to these accommodations. However, said Luana Schena and Laura Galli, the application process for accommodations is too time-consuming and bureaucratic, and it is not consistent across the faculties. Luana Schena, for example, is permanently blind but has to resubmit her application every semester. In her response, Siegert said UZH is currently revising these processes with the aim of simplifying them. In addition, the university has this year significantly increased the number of staff processing applications for accommodations. Comments from the audience backed up statements from the panelists: UZH needs to promote an inclusive mindset, and that must come from above; cultural change is now the most important thing. 

In the end, everyone agreed there is still a lot to do, especially when it comes to raising awareness of the concerns and needs of disabled people. Although some promising measures have already been introduced through the UZH Accessible project, improvements now need to be consistently implemented and the university must keep students and staff up to date about the progress. Lively discussions between representatives of the Executive Board and students continued long after the panel discussion was over, showing that this is a conversation that needs to be continued.