The right to move freely

  • Education
  • Sunday, 16 Feb 2020

Some of the challenges faced by disabled students and staff as they move about the university, which include cars blocking their access to a ramp.

Disabled students and lecturers in Universiti Malaya struggle due to poor facilities despite having inclusive policies in place.

ACCESS to education is a basic right for every individual.

Yet, even at the turn of the decade, many disabled students in public higher education institutions (HEIs) find themselves having to put up with the lack of facilities.

All public HEIs must become completely disabled-friendly within the next decade.

Former education minister Dr Maszlee Malik said this is part of the guidelines for the OKU (Disabled) Inclusion in Higher Education Institutions Policy that was implemented last January. (see fact box)

So far, Universiti Malaya, International Islamic University Malaysia and Universiti Sains Malaysia have implemented the policy.

Since the implementation of the inclusive guidelines last year, what has been done so far?

Several students and lecturers from Malaysia’s oldest university, Universiti Malaya (UM), reached out to StarEdu to share their challenges due to the lack of accessibility and facilities in the varsity campus.

Inadequate facilities

Over the course of pursuing his three-year undergraduate degree in UM, wheelchair bound Amer Hakimy Zulkefli saw minimal improvement in the university’s facilities for the disabled.

Lamenting his frustration, the final year final year Malay Literature student said a common response the management gives is the lack of funding to upgrade its facilities.

Amer suffers from cerebral palsy, a condition that causes impaired and involuntary movements.

“Many of our buildings do not have lifts and ramps for wheelchair users, which is problematic as it disrupts our learning process.

The walkway which stretches over 800 metres is in bad shape and unrepaired.The walkway which stretches over 800 metres is in bad shape and unrepaired.

“As a result, there have been cases of disabled students who were transferred to other faculties, which includes me as well, ” said Amer, 23.He spent several months studying in the Arts and Social Science Faculty, which was his first choice.

However, due to areas in the faculty that lack lifts and ramp accessibility, he had to be transferred to the faculty of his second choice.

“It’s sad because we don’t get to study the course of our liking.

“Even the Language and Linguistic Faculty don’t have ramps and lifts.

“I have complained to the management but their reasons have been consistent which is, they are financially tight; they said the cost to build lifts can go up to RM1mil.

“They tell us to wait but we don’t know how long to wait. I’m already in my final year, ” he added.

Amer said some of the minimal improvements he’s noticed are the installation of ramps on the first floors of buildings.

“But this is only in certain areas, ” he said.

Despite his frustration, Amer acknowledged UM’s efforts in adopting an inclusive policy for its OKU students and having a management unit specifically for disabled students.

Echoing Amer’s frustration was a student who only wants to be known as Ming, 22.

The second year Arts and Social Science student is visually impaired and an Association of Special-Needs Students of Universiti Malaya (PERMIUM) member.

“My faculty isn’t very disabled friendly and not all the pathways in the university has tactile paving so it is difficult to know where we are going and whether it’s safe to cross the road.

“I have gotten lost so many times on my way to class.

“Pathways that have tactile paving are old and need maintenance, while many areas can only be accessed by stairs, causing further challenges for students who are visually impaired, ” shared the Johorian.

When asked about UM’s response to their qualms, Ming said the management says it will look into their matter.

“But they are slow in taking action, ” he added.

Despite having an inclusive policy in place which provides guidance for the university management and lecturers in handling matters regarding OKU students, Ming said not all staff are aware of the policy.

“The management always tells us they face financial difficulties.

Dr Noraishah says ramps in newer buildings cannot be accessed because the doors are locked.Dr Noraishah says ramps in newer buildings cannot be accessed because the doors are locked.

“I hope the government will evaluate this matter through a survey or some form of data to allocate a budget according to the needs of universities, ” he added.

Amer echoed Ming, saying the accessibility for the visually impaired is especially poor, with Seventh Residential College being the most accessible place for them.

Seventh Residential College is a hostel for UM’s students with disabilities.

“I had a meeting with the management in early January, they wanted feedback on how they can improve accessibility in Seventh College.

“They said they will add more tactile paving and will make the pathways safer, but this was specifically for Seventh College, ” Amer shared.

A few ways the university has tried to alleviate the disabled students’ plight, Ming said, is by arranging shuttle van services starting last February.

“It sends us anywhere in UM according to our request and visually impaired students also have an officer who takes care of our matters; he is visually impaired himself, ” Ming added.

Students’ welfare and safety

Unmaintained walkways which are mainly used by disabled students are among issues UM’s student union has brought to its attention.

Student union president Mohd Akmal Hazieq Ahmad Rumaizi showed StarEdu the walkway, which stretches over 800 metres and is tattered.

The union raised the matter in March last year, he said.

“It connects students from the third, fourth and seventh residential colleges to their classes.

“It’s been almost a year, and it is still not repaired; students are exposed to erratic weather and due to our inefficient bus services, they walk along this unmaintained walkway.

“This concern must be addressed because flash floods and storms do happen here, ” he said, adding that the walkway is the main route students with disabilities use as it has a special lane for them.

Several areas in the university’s faculty of medicine aren’t accessible by wheelchair users.Several areas in the university’s faculty of medicine aren’t accessible by wheelchair users.

Like Ming and Amer, Mohd Akmal said meetings with the university management has been futile as the union often receives responses such as lack of funds or that the matter is still under discussion.

It is a question of students’ safety, he stressed.

“We sympathise when we see abled bodied students using this walkway in such weather, now imagine a student with disability going through the same.

“I have been informed by UM that the repairs will not take place between February and June this year.

“Isn’t this a matter of welfare and safety that needs to be looked into urgently before students enrol for the February and June 2020 semester?

“I ask the government and universities to take this matter seriously for the safety of students, especially students with disabilities, ” he said.

Lecturers in the same boat

The lack of accessibility for the disabled in UM affects not only its students, but lecturers as well.

Dr Noraishah Mydin Abdul Aziz, a senior lecturer in the faculty of medicine, suffers from spina bifida.

The UM academic union secretary showed StarEdu the difficulty she faces when moving around the university campus on a daily basis.

There are over 400 academics under the union.

“I am the second OKU academic in the history of my department and I strongly feel that the faculty has not taken necessary safety precautions for a wheelchair user when accessing its facilities, such as the canteen.

“Food and sustenance are my basic human rights; a shortcut

takes me 20 minutes one way to reach the canteen because the ramps and walkways are often blocked by motorcycles and cars parked haphazardly.

“Ramps in relatively new buildings cannot be accessed because the doors are locked and aren’t being used.

“Even access to the canteen in the trauma and emergency section of Universiti Malaya Medical Centre is cordoned off with a notice that says wheelchair users are a danger to patients, ” she added.

She maneuvers through potholes as cars zoom by on a narrow two-lane road to show us her route to the faculty’s canteen, which brings her through a dingy and dark underground pathway.

Personal engagement with students

THE country’s first university will be fully disabled-friendly.

Plans include installing ramps in existing buildings and lifts for the disabled in newer buildings, UM deputy vice-chancellor (Student Affairs) Prof Dr Abdul Aziz Abdul Raman said.

While some places aren’t equipped with facilities for the disabled, he said the university is progressively improving and takes note of all the comments and complaints it receives.

It conducts personal engagement with its OKU students to get their feedback and looks at the individual needs of the students, he added.

“We provide wheelchairs for all wheelchair bound students, volunteer readers for deaf students, employability enhancement programmes and supporting PERMIUM with their activities.

“We have a special (hostel) dedicated to them (seventh residential college), and we have a shuttle to transport them from hostel to to their respective faculty and vice-versa.

“Of course, some of our facilities can be improved but we also have some of the better inclusive policies, ” he said.

Prof Abdul Aziz says the university will ensure its campus is OKU-friendlyProf Abdul Aziz says the university will ensure its campus is OKU-friendly

Commenting on the matter, he encouraged disabled-students to approach the management any time with feedback, as the university tries to cater to everyone’s needs.

“On Oct 4 last year, we had a gathering with OKU students who gave us suggestions on the facilities we can improve on.

“Some of these suggestions are long-term; we have started work on the short-term plans, ” he said, adding that the university currently has 72 OKU students.

In September 2019, Prof Abdul Aziz said the university started its own inclusive policy, which helps them understand the needs and requirements of those with disabilities better.

“Based on our experience, the execution of this policy, even on the physical and facility aspects, is definitely doable and manageable.

“It doesn’t require an entire new building. What’s needed are some adjustments and creativity from what we currently have.

“For example, making sure that they get rooms and classrooms on the ground floor and making minor renovations to existing facilities, ” he said.

OKU (Disabled) Inclusion in Higher Education Institutions Policy fact box:

> Former education minister Dr Maszlee Malik said inclusive education policy in place to eliminate the separation of OKU students from other students.

> Among the points in the guidelines are barriers in the system that discriminate against the OKU and the maximum graduation period which needs to be extended for OKU as most of them need more time to complete their studies and carry out research.

> Study materials that specifically cater to those who are visually-impaired, deaf or have different learning abilities should also be provided.

> Infrastructure needs to be upgraded so that the community can access the facilities at the institutions.

> The lack of ramps, lifts and narrow toilets need to be looked into.

> Higher education institutions are using their own funds to carry out the changes.

> The guidelines state that all public HEIs must use the policy and establish an OKU Services Unit that is separate from the Students Affairs Unit.

> The OKU Services Unit will cater not just to OKU students but staff as well and will be placed under the vice-chancellor’s office.

> From last year, a special entrance stream into public HEIs was created for OKU, B40, athletes and Orang Asli.

> The ministry implemented a Zero-Reject Policy in national schools so that no child is denied their right to education.

> The OKU Inclusion in Higher Education Institutions Policy will be carried out and given priority at all higher education institutions to ensure facilities and continuous education support systems can be given to OKU students.

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