How can TU Delft also be a place for neurodivergent students?

De-escalation rooms, flexible education, and extra supervision. How do people at TU Delft think that it can become a safe and inclusive place for neurodivergent students?

(Illustration: Jowan de Haan)

Three of 10 students in higher education have a functional impairment. Ten percent of them suffer from a condition that could hinder their studies. These are students with a neurodivergent brain (dyslexia, ADD, ADHD or a condition on the autism spectrum) for example. Studying then poses quite a challenge. Do fellow students and teachers have enough knowledge and understanding?

  • Neurodiversity includes everything that differs from the norm (neurotypical brain). These are neurotypes such as autism, ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, schizophrenia, dyslexia and so on. PTSD, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and depression are also considered part of it.

To answer these and other questions, in October Delta and 18 universities of applied sciences and universities investigated how diversity and inclusion are experienced in higher education. The survey was prematurely ended after a publication on the GeenStijl website. Nevertheless, more than 100 TU Delft students and staff members filled in the questionnaire.

Less group work
There were dozens of answers to the open question what TU Delft could do to make it a more inclusive place for neurodivergent students. The suggestions varied from reducing the workload and pressure on students to less group work and better training Academic Counsellors and teachers in dealing with neurodivergent students.

Also pay attention to students who are struggling

The respondents believe that awareness is the most important issue. ‘Do not only pay attention to students who perform well, but also to students who are struggling. Not all students have the neuro capacity to cover and understand a subject within three months’, writes one student. Another suggests better supervision for neurodivergent students. ‘One that emphasises their strengths instead of their less strong sides.’

Rigid education
Vlagsma of Ieder(in), the network for people with a disability or chronic illness, hears these suggestions often. “The signals that we get from students are mostly about the rigid way in which education is organised (e.g. scheduling, obligatory physical attendance, group work). There is also a lack of knowledge and prejudice against conditions such as autism. As neurodiversity is invisible, students have to repeatedly say that they need support and are not always taken seriously.”

Vlagsma sees that the level of attention for neurodivergent students is currently too low. She says that the right of neurodivergent students to enjoy education on an equal footing is not a matter of course for many institutions. She sees that schools usually focus on arranging provisions such as adapted exams and schedules. “And some teachers and supervisors are concerned that studying should not be made easier for neurodivergent students than for neurotypical students. Teachers and student deans worry about having to make trade-offs for individual students who want this or that, or for people who, when they graduate and start working, are unable to work independently as they are used to receiving support all the time.”

She believes that inclusiveness would be helped by students being able to study flexibly and teachers and support staff knowing more about the specific needs of neurodivergent students.

De-escalation calming rooms
van der Tol of Student Onbeperkt, the platform for TU Delft students with functional impairments, agrees. “We argue for education without physical, digital and social barriers. Flexible and hybrid education makes it possible for everyone to join in. Even if you are not able to come to campus.”

The platform advises TU Delft, upon request or otherwise, about subjects that are important for students with a functional impairment. To do this they regularly get input from their members. “We recognise the aforementioned suggestions. We have sometimes already made recommendations or are working on them.”

To this end Student Onbeperkt arranged a session about so-called calm spaces on Tuesday 29 November. These are de-escalation calming rooms to which students can retreat. Although that varies from person to person. For some students, a calm space is a space where you can smash things and for others, it is a de-escalation space.

This issue is also one of interest among the respondents as one quarter of them suggested creating a quiet room. ‘There is a need for a place away from other people where you can go to relax and be yourself’ wrote one student.

Points for improvement
not all respondents believe that TU Delft should do anything to improve the inclusion of neurodivergent students. ‘Being different is just part of life’, says one respondent. Another thinks that TU Delft is already doing better. ‘Although academic counsellors should get better tools to be able to deal with students with psychological conditions.’ What these tools could be is not mentioned.

Being different is just part of life

Van der Tol agrees with this, although she sees that academic counsellors are already very busy. “They are not always able to help students. They want to help and to help properly, but this is a big challenge given their high workload.”

She also sees points for improvement for Delta. If the editorial team wants all articles for students and staff members to be accessible, we would do well to have our website checked according to the WCAG-EM standard (Website Accessibility Conformance Evaluation Methodology, a European standard for digital accessibility, Eds.). “You will be advised on how to improve the website. But it is expensive to do.” Further, Delta videos on social media should be subtitled and images described. But the most important thing is the language use, says Van der Tol. “Use the preferred wording of our target group, such as disability and handicap instead of invalid or disabled.”

News editor Marjolein van der Veldt

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