January 18, 2014

Does the University of Latvia want students with physical disabilities?

The University of Latvia (LU) with 16 100 students is the largest higher education institution in the Baltic States. However, the management of the university can’t tell how many students with disabilities are seeking education at their institutions. The people who are responsible think that there might be “two or three” such students. But nobody knows for sure. This shows a common attitude of the LU towards its students with disabilities. Or, more precisely, no attitude at all.

By Beata Sokalska, Laura Davidavičius, Mārtiņš Pričins, Laura Krekšina

Nothing has changed in ten years. The same high stairwdisabilityays, heavy doors and inaccessible auditoriums. The LU Faculty of Economics is located in a beautiful historical building in Aspazijas Boulevard, but Anda Ģipsle (42) says that she associates this building with joy and proudness of the hard work in her studies and, also, a task to ask other students of faculty to carry her up or down the stairs to the auditorium that had become a daily routine.  A joyful woman with a blue sweater and flowery scarf says her ‘blend-a-med’ smile always worked out for her and she doesn’t hesitate to use it in public places even today. Anda kept her aims high and got her university diploma in 2001.

Nothing has changed since Anda’s studies at the faculty. Getting higher education at the biggest faculty of the university for students with disabilities is almost impossible. None of the 13 LU faculties, as well as the main building in Raiņa Boulevard, are not friendly for people with disabilities. There are special rails to go up the stairs with a wheelchair at the backyard of the building, but, as the experiment performed by students showed, rails are too narrow, so that it is impossible to get in the building without additional help or prior notice.

According to the State Social Insurance Agency, there are 5567 people with disabilities in the age of potential students (19-25 years old), 3135 of which have the disability of I and II group. The precise number is not known, but there could be at least 441 – this many people with physical disabilities get compensations for transport expenses. Next potential students could be also 284 scholars with disabilities of I or II group, who will be able to apply for a government paid assistantship up to 40 hours a week.

As the total number of students in Latvia is decreasing, these young people with disabilities would give a significant contribution to the institutions of Latvian higher education. The luckier go to study abroad. Another alternative for students with disabilities is the vocational school of Jurmala, where it is possible to get a first level vocational education.

”There are several special education institutions. There is a possibility to learn, what else do you need? This is the country’s attitude,” these are the words of Aigars Bolis, an activist of the association that supports people with disabilities “Apeirons”.

Welcome but try get in

Officials of the University say that everyone’s welcome to the LU, as well as students with disabilities. However, after continuous telephone calls and interviews nobody at the university could tell the young journalists how many students with disabilities are studying at the LU. Authors of this research spent a month trying to clarify who is ready to talk about the issue. At the LU press office journalists were told to ask the LU Student Service director Janis Saulītis but he didn’t know if there are students with special needs at the LU. Saulītis thought the university doesn’t have such students. At the same time employee of his office and the contact person for people with disabilities at the university Dace Kaņepe said that there are some students studying at the university: “It is observed that there are two or three students in some faculties.”

The Latvian laws don’t prescribe that the country should provide higher education possibilities for people with disabilities. The Constitution of Latvia prescribes a right to get education for everyone, as well as the UN Convention that delegates the obligation for its member states to get rid of any obstacles that hinder access to several objects, including schools. But in everyday life we see that these documents don’t have influence and people with disabilities don’t have legal rights, such as access to primary or secondary education. A significant improvement is the program that was developed by the Ministry of Welfare that will provide assistantship for scholars with disabilities.

The reason why nothing changes is usually the same – the shortage of budget. But this research reveals other reasons as well. One to blame is the attitude. The management of the LU doesn’t know how many students with disabilities are learning at the university. Nobody can tell how much money is needed to equip the university buildings with special chair lifts and elevators. LU, together with “Apeirons”, carried out investigation on buildings in 2011, but this is where it all ended.

The director of the LU Atis Peičs says that technical improvements cost “fantastic sums”, but he wasn’t able to name the exact costs. „No, I don’t know. I haven’t taken interest in this issue.”

Peičs mentions that the university has bought special lifts – tractors. But when the journalists wanted to know the number of these devices and its costs, Peičs asked not to go into details. Instead he advised the journalists how to write this article: “They have been bought [the tractors]. No, I suggest not to use such words”bought” and”rented”. Just put this it this way:”they use tractors that help a person to get around.””

Asked the Taxi Drivers for Help

In the biggest faculty of the LU – the Faculty of Economics and Management – there are a little more than 4000 students. There are two entrances into the faculty and both are not suitable for people with disabilities. There is a high step at the central entrance, but only steep stairs without a ramp on any side at the backyard side.

Person on duty at the faculty didn’t know how a person in wheelchair can get into the building. When the journalists asked her about the tractor that would help a person to get up the stairs, she put her hands out of the duty window and said:”Girls, move aside! Are there any of my supervisors?”

The faculty is big. Wooden boards are squeaking in the wide corridors. Getting into auditoriums is not a big problem, as the doors open wide enough, but moving between the floors is not so easy.

“You can only rely on support of relatives and friends because there is only an old elevator in this building and it goes only up to the 3floor and nobody uses it now,” says the executive director of the faculty Kaspars Čikste. “The elevator is on half-floor, it means that one needs to climb ten steps up from the main entrance or more and then ten steps down from the backyard,” adds Anda Ģipsle. The facilities are not equipped with support handles, and there are no special cabins for people with disabilities. These are still the same obstacles that student Anda had to fight with in her everyday life ten years ago.

Anda says she had two main problems when studying: accessing the auditoriums and getting around the faculty. Anda couldn’t get into public transport, so she had to find an alternative – to go with special minibuses or use a taxi.

”The prices of minibuses were not proportional in comparison to the allowance that I received every month. At the beginning of my studies it was cheap to get to the university but then prices increased sharply and expenses for a ride by minibus was the same as for a taxi,” remembers Anda. Soon she started to use just a taxi. Anda didn’t have an assistant. Her parents worked and couldn’t help her, so she tried to become friends with taxi drivers and talked them into helping her get into the faculty. “But more often I was waiting for other students to pass by and help. It was tough because the lectures were on the third, fourth and later on the fifth floor,” remembers Anda. “It was hard to ask for help but the studies were my priority.”

To cover transport expenses Anda went to social services at the Riga City council. After some unsuccessful visits to several institutions Anda started to lose hope. But unexpectedly the management of the faculty solved the issue of money by raising my allowance. ”Actually I was maintained by the faculty, not social services,” remembers Anda.

Executive director of the Faculty of Economics Čikste says that the management of the faculties started to give more thought to the students with disabilities. A separate Department of Development and Planning that should work with issues of accessibility was established at the faculty. The department also has to find out which funds of the European Union can be accessed by the LU, what projects have to be written. The Faculty of Economics made the calculations – an outlet elevator would cost 100 000 lats. – “And this is only the elevator. If the European Union will allocate some funds then the rest will have to be paid by the university because it is unlikely that government will allocate any funds at all,” says Čikste.

Establishment of facilities and chair lifts would require additional costs.”Tehnovers”, the company that specializes in producing equipment for people with disabilities says that the costs of every project are different. For example, prices of stationary lifts vary from 3 500 to even 25 000 lats. An alternative is a mobile lift that is usually chosen because of its price and because it is possible to use it in narrow staircases. However, when using a mobile lift, additional help from others is still needed.

Considering the case of the University of Latvia, installation of equipment is not easy because some of the buildings have the status of an architectural monument. Firstly, there are not so many places that are available to install a lift, secondly, inspection of buildings and engineering investigations have to be carried out because lifts have to be adapted according to requirements.

After 10 Years it will be Better

Peičs, the director of the LU, thinks that is not worth to equip faculty buildings with new equipment especially for people with disabilities. The University has started the development of the new LU complex of buildings in Torņkalns that has received 22.7 million lats from European Union.

The current faculty buildings will be sold to cover co-payment.

“Why invest into buildings that will be sold in five or ten years?” asks Peičs.

The new LU buildings will be adapted for students with disabilities. It is also a requirement of definite building normative acts: all newly built and renovated public buildings have to be adapted for people with disabilities. In reality this requirement sometimes is not fulfilled and owners of such buildings are not punished. An expert of the accessible environment organization “Apeirons” Aigars Bolis says that it is possible to make a complaint during 30 days after the building is put into exploitation. “If it hasn’t been done, then that’s all,” he says.

It is planned to finish the LU project of Torņkalns until 2023. It means that students will have to study at current faculty buildings for another ten years. The director of the LU director thinks that it would be wise to employ assistants now: “It is ten times cheaper to pay a student that doesn’t have lectures in that particular moment, so that he or she could be a curator and assist students with special needs.”

This summer a similar idea was developed by the Ministry of Welfare. The government confirmed that starting from the next year the country will pay for assistance for scholars. Representatives of the ministry told that this norm will apply also to students but they couldn’t explain how this norm will work in details.

At the same time both the director of the LU and Saulītis name another reason why LU doesn’t try to improve the conditions of people with disabilities – the lack of interest from potential students with disabilities.

”When a student with disabilities sees the impressive buildings of the university, one most probably thinks it is hard to get in,” says director of LU Student Service Saulītis. The representative of the organization that supports people with disabilities “Apeirons”, Mr. Aigars Bolis agrees that sometimes people with disabilities also lack the spirit to fight. „If someone is refused the first time, the fighting spirit decreases by the second refusal. And quite often the involved person with disability doesn’t want to complain and be the ratfink,” says Bolis. Many people with special needs don’t even think about higher education because they are worried about other, more primary things.

“Sometimes in the countryside there are no wheelchairs, it is not possible to get out of the house and public transportation is also inaccessible,” says Bolis.

The Office of Ombudsman also confirms that nobody had asked for help concerning accessibility of higher education institutions. But the possibility to improve the situation is there.

“Cases of individual argument are possible when a person raises a claim in court that there has been a violation of rules, that the accessibility of environment wasn’t provided. If accessibility of the environment has been an obstacle for a person to get an education, he or she can raise a claim in court. The penalty is a moral compensation that the court determines according to its views,” explains the representative of the Office of Ombudsman Šarlote Bērziņa.

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