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Is there still place for an OKU in HEIs?

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Enabling individuals with disabilities to access higher education is a shared responsibility. Photo by Robert Ruggiero - Unsplash

By: Dr. Azleen Ilias

Under the Malaysia MADANI narrative, access to higher education for people with disabilities (OKU) is crucial in overcoming higher education barriers in an increasingly inclusive world. Hence, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) play a vital role in creating an inclusive educational environment by reducing challenges to OKU access.

Dr. Azleen Ilias

OKU students face a multitude of challenges in pursuing their dreams. Firstly, inadequate facilities, including inaccessible buildings, restricted ramps, and inappropriate transportation, make it difficult for OKU students to navigate campus life. Additionally, HEIs may struggle to provide sufficient units or centers to meet the diverse needs of individual OKU students.

Secondly, digital learning tools can be inaccessible, particularly in online learning environments. OKU students may encounter difficulties accessing websites, e-learning platforms, or documents independently. Teaching methods and learning materials, such as course materials, might not cater to all OKU students, some of whom require alternative formats like braille. Diverse test patterns and evaluations are also essential to accommodate the varying requirements of OKU students, who may need additional assistance, such as extra time or alternative formats, to succeed.

Thirdly, OKU students may face stigma and discrimination from the community due to their disabilities. These negative attitudes can lead to social exclusion, disrupt their experiences in HEIs, and increase the stress and anxiety associated with their disabilities, on top of their academic demands.

Fourth, the costs associated with disability and technological needs can be a significant financial burden for some students, who may need to attend medical appointments and therapeutic sessions.

Fifth, preserving individual rights is imperative, especially if OKU students are unaware of available facilities or face obstacles in meeting their requests. Additionally, representation of OKU students related to diversity and participation may be limited, which underscores the importance of improving such representation to meet the needs of OKU students.

Several initiatives can be introduced to ensure that people with disabilities (OKU) receive adequate support and incentives to benefit from existing opportunities.

One, regularly evaluate and improve campus infrastructure to ensure full accessibility. Install clear signs indicating paths and facilities accessible to all types of OKU.

Two, ensure that digital resources, such as learning management systems and course materials, comply with OKU accessibility standards. The Higher Education Institution (HEI) should provide training for academics and staff on creating digital content that is accessible to OKU students.

Three, improve disability support services by allocating adequate funding for OKU support and assistance tools, in line with the requirements of Academic Affairs and Student Affairs.

Four, promote a culture of participation, diversity, and mutual respect on campus through awareness campaigns, workshops, and participation initiatives for OKU groups.

Five, provide mental health support services that are sensitive to the unique needs and challenges of OKU students, while promoting open dialogue on mental health to reduce the stigma they may face on campus.

Six, integrate efforts between HEIs, community welfare departments, and local authorities to ensure public transportation that is accessible to OKU.

Seven, establish a fund to help cover the expenses related to equipment, aids, and accommodation for OKU students, including connecting students to appropriate financial assistance opportunities. Although the Ministry of Higher Education has implemented the Financial Assistance for OKU students in higher education institutions, the HEI still needs to improve physical accessibility, offer comprehensive financial assistance, and develop a culture of inclusion and diversity on campus. For example, Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN) offers scholarships through various setups, such as the UNITEN Zakat Trust Fund and the National Energy Foundation.

Eight, encourage faculty members to produce course materials that are accessible to OKU, including those for hearing and vision-impaired students.

Nine, help students set up a flexible academic schedule that accommodates medical appointments and other requirements, such as physiotherapy sessions.

Ten, educate students about their rights and available support and offer workshops to build self-confidence.

Eleven, develop alternative assessment methods while providing guidance on managing requirements during assessments.

Twelve, promote a diverse and inclusive curriculum that reflects the experiences and contributions of OKU individuals while actively encouraging their participation and self-confidence.

Thirteen, maintain open communication with students about their ever-changing needs, ensuring flexibility and adaptability to the current environment.

Finally, provide ongoing training for staff and faculty on OKU issues and collaborate with stakeholders to share best practices and promote OKU education. The HEI should gather feedback from students and involve them in the decision-making process and inclusive HEI policies.

In conclusion, enabling individuals with disabilities to access higher education is a shared responsibility. HEIs must strive to overcome obstacles, while the community must work towards equal opportunities for all students, especially those with disabilities, to ensure that every individual can pursue their academic dreams and contribute to a more diverse nation, regardless of their physical abilities.

……

The author is an OKU and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Accountancy and Finance, UNITEN Business School (UBS), Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN). She may be reached at azleens@uniten.edu.my

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