Student exchange programmes offer many opportunities for personal and professional growth, academic enrichment, and cultural immersion. For special needs students, participating in these programmes can be especially transformative. However, the success of their experience depends on many things, including the availability of well-trained staff and faculty who can provide the necessary support and accommodations.
It is imperative that educational institutions prioritize training for their staff and faculty to strive for inclusion and ensuring that disabled and special needs students can fully embrace the benefits of international exchange. An example is given from Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, where the International Services staff training has already started, due to “Mobility for all: Innovative measures to enhance international mobility for special needs students” project (MOB4ALL). The project is a Ulysseus European University satellite project, funded under the Erasmus+ programme (KA2 Strategic Partnerships).
MOB4ALL aims to promote the international mobility of students with special needs through the capacity building of the support staff and faculty. Inclusivity is the cornerstone of a modern, responsible and accessible educational institution. Staff members are the heartbeat of any organization, and it is through their attitudes, knowledge, and skills that true inclusivity can be fostered.
Attitudes: Creating an Inclusive Educational Landscape
Trained staff and faculty play an important role in ensuring that all students, regardless of their abilities, have equal access to the enriching experiences offered by student exchange programmes. Their knowledge and expertise help bridging service gaps and provide tailored support.
During encounters with disabled and special needs students, supporting staff and faculty should ask themselves: Am I focusing on the capacity or the incapacity of the student? Do I think that student exchange is possible for them or do I see a lot of obstacles and even impossibility? In OHO! project (2019), a survey was made for teachers, faculty members and students to find out the level of accessibility in Finnish higher educational institutions. Some comments, which the teachers and faculty mentioned when asked about reaching accessibility and personalized service in their work, were e.g. “there is not enough time”, “we are so busy in our work because of large teaching groups”, and “the special needs students’ challenges mean extra work for us”.
These comments reveal, that staff and faculty members often see many obstacles, and may forget that special needs students in fact have plenty of strengths. Furthermore, the fact that the students have had to struggle with their deficits through their lives, may have required a lot of creativity, imagination and problem-solving skills, so the students possess many important capabilities needed for international exchange.
The Finnish Non-Discrimination Act (2014) states that all educational institutions in Finland should give special support to students with illness, disability or learning difficulties. The Non-Discrimination Act emphasizes the fact that all educational institutions must have a clear strategy on how to ensure reasonable adjustments to all students with special needs. Naturally, all students should have equal access to opportunities.
In the OHO! project survey (2019) only one third of the students thought that information about international exchanges was either well or somewhat accessible. However, according to the special needs students, who were interviewed in focus groups for MOB4ALL Report on Inclusive Mobility, the obstacles are not impossible to cross. The students could see the need and importance of training for university staff to better understand and address their special needs. From the students’ perspective, there should not be too many service contact points and information sources, as this may lead to confusion. From institutional perspective there must be clear communication between academic and administrative staff to ensure that the special needs support is available at all stages of the student’s journey.
A well-prepared staff and faculty cohort form the backbone of a supportive community. They serve as mentors, advocates, and resources, creating an environment where disabled and special needs students feel welcomed, valued, and empowered.
The MOB4ALL project’s Report on Inclusive Mobility aims to raise awareness on the needs of students with disabilities and to identify successful practices and procedures in supporting special needs students, and thus enabling a better understanding of the different needs and procedural approaches to better support their international mobilities.
Knowledge: Tailoring Support to Individual Needs
Special needs students encompass a wide spectrum of abilities, but they also face barriers and challenges in their lives. Proper training equips staff and faculty with the knowledge needed to comprehend and address this diversity equitably.
MOB4ALL Specialized Training Course “Training for Better Integration of Mobility Participants with Disabilities” addresses four different types of special needs: 1. physical disabilities, 2. impaired vision or hearing 3. learning difficulties, dyslexia and 4. autism spectrum, attention deficit, and mental health. Staff and faculty need to know basic information about the different types of special needs, in order to identify and address the diverse needs. Understanding the barriers the students face, helps to ensure that all necessary measures are taken to provide a barrier-free environment.
As an example, dyslexia affects ca 10 % of population (Levin Bowman, Culotta, 2010). Dyslexia runs in families and is a life-long condition. Dyslexia is a learning difficulty and does not influence intelligence. People with dyslexia may have difficulties in:
- phonological awareness: letter-sound connections are not automatic, mixing letters
- verbal memory: “What was it in the beginning of the sentence…”
- verbal processing speed: slowness in reading and writing,
states The British Dyslexia Association. Once the university staff and faculty know these basic features of dyslexia, they can better understand the students’ needs, they make less mis-interpretations about the students capabilities, and they can adjust their services and modify their information to be more accessible. Janne Mertala, Guidance Counselor and Teacher of the MOB4ALL training course made an important insight: “When I modify my learning materials to be more clear and concise for the students with dyslexia, I actually help all students!”
Skills: Adapting Learning Environments
Adapting learning environments goes beyond a wheel-chair accessible campus. Special needs students need a variety of support in class: assistive technology, personal assistants, reserved seats and learning materials before the class, subtitles, sign language interpreters, usage of a recorder, hearing loops, braille, flexibility in assignment deadlines, personalized assignments, to name a few. Faculty needs to focus on adapting their teaching methods, learning materials, and environments to cater to diverse accessibility needs, ensuring that all students can engage fully with the educational experience.
The support services, too, need to re-model their service paths for more inclusive ones. Sometimes it is even hard to know who the special needs students are, and support services may need to create ways to identify the students. For special needs students, preparing for an exchange involves more than just packing bags. It may involve for example coordinating with healthcare providers, understanding local disability services, and planning for any assistive devices or medications needed abroad.
Special needs students may need more support with their applications and planning their studies. The students, who participated in focus groups for “MOB4ALL Report on Inclusive Mobility”, believe that it would be important to have better communication between different agents between their home university and host university as well as with EduFi national agency. They requested for more accessible information and help in processing it. The help could be provided e.g. in personal guidance and follow-up meetings. The students also brought up the need for positive messages and examples, which refers to representation. They also identified the need for a training for university staff, so that they would better understand and address the needs of the students.
“MOB4ALL Guidelines for mobility officers, academic and non-academic staff and tutor students” is a tool-box for staff advising special needs students going for exchange. The purpose of the Guidelines is to support in creating a safe and accessible environment for all students, keeping in mind that each institution is different from the others. The focus is on the barriers, which can be broken down, finding ways and resources to meet the specific needs of each student. The Guidelines addresses the support in three phases: before, during and after the mobility, and focuses on the four different types of disability.
Trained staff and faculty members possess the skills to communicate with empathy and actively listen to the needs and experiences of disabled and special needs students, creating a conducive and understanding learning environment.
Paving the Way for Inclusive Global Education
Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences arranged a MOB4ALL Multiplier Event on the 4th of May 2023. The Multiplier Event was arranged as part of The EduFi Spring Forum for Higher Education Institutions 2023, which is one of the main events for the staff and faculty of the Finnish higher education institutions and other stakeholders of education sector. The main outcome of the event was that there was a lively discussion about the special needs students’ barriers with regard to student exchange, and a set of solutions to conquer them was presented.
Already more than half of the Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences International Services staff has completed the MOB4ALL Specialized training course “Training for Better Integration of Mobility Participants with Disabilities”. The goal is that all International Affairs Specialists will be trained by the end of year 2024. Using the MOB4ALL Guidelines, International Affairs Specialists are currently re-modeling their service paths for both incoming and outgoing student exchange, and also for staff and teacher exchange.
The MOB4ALL project has decided to give open access to all deliverables created in the project. We hope to give many more staff and faculty members the opportunity to learn from the MOB4ALL Specialized Training Course “Training for Better Integration of Mobility Participants with Disabilities”. The interactive and informative learning material in Moodle will be available via the MOB4ALL website.
Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences is aiming at becoming a discrimination-free university. Haaga-Helia’s way to accomplish it, is by systematically developing practices to identify and address discrimination, bullying, and harassment within its structures and interactions while promoting equality. (Haaga-Helia 2023). All students need equal access to opportunities. Internationalization opportunities should be made possible for everyone, even for disabled and special needs students. MOB4ALL project has been one way toward a more inclusive learning community. In a few years time, we shall find out whether the adjustments and modifications in our processes, as well as the attitudes, knowledge and skills of our trained staff, have indeed increased the number of special needs students participating in exchange programmes, according to MOB4ALL project goals.
With the support of trained staff and faculty, disabled and special needs students can thrive in international settings, gaining confidence, independence, and a global perspective that will serve them well in their future endeavors.
The commitment to training staff and faculty to support special needs students on student exchange programmes is a powerful testament to an institution’s dedication to inclusivity and accessibility. With the right guidance and resources, these students can embark on international adventures, confident that they have a network of knowledgeable, empathetic professionals supporting them every step of the way. Together, we can create a world where educational opportunities are truly accessible to everyone.
Lehto, Huhta, Huuhka: Kaikkien korkeakoulu? Raportti OHO!-hankkeessa vuonna 2018 tehdyistä korkeakoulujen saavutettavuuskyselyistä. OHO!-hanke 2019.
Levin Bowman, Culotta, 2010. International Dyslexia Association.
Mobility for all: Innovative measures to enhance international mobility for special needs students -project website.
Intellectual outcome 1: MOB4ALL Report on Inclusive Mobility
Intellectual outcome 2: MOB4ALL Specialized Training Course “Training for Better Integration of Mobility Participants with Disabilities”
Intellectual outcome 3: MOB4ALL Guidelines for mobility officers, academic and non-academic staff and tutor students
Non-Discrimination Act (1325/2014)