According to the Ministry of Education, the application of the law was previously applied only to special schools for students with physical impairments. The most recent change in the law, however, makes the law applicable to all types of educational institutions, from private academies to public schools for students of all ages. The law mandates that these schools, including universities, construct facilities and offer learning support programs that cater to the needs of students with physical disabilities. Considering these new requirements, how is Dongguk University trying to meet the needs of these students with special needs?
The Post took an in-depth look at what the university is currently doing to accommodate students with physical disabilities. In addition, the newspaper investigated other Korean universities to see if they have successfully met the needs of these students, as the law stipulates.
Unfortunately, many universities in the country have failed to take appropriate action. As the media has revealed, the situation is actually quite dismal in some cases. For example, at some universities, students with physical impairments have had difficulty entering buildings to attend classes. Even worse, at some universities, toilets reserved for students with disabilities have been used as storage rooms for cleaning staff.
Sogang University, on the other hand, has emerged as a success story for accommodating students with special needs. Eleven students with physical disabilities were admitted as freshmen this year, and there are currently a total of 79 students with physical impairments enrolled. Kim Young-kwan, a student with a physical disability at Sogang University majoring in political science and diplomacy, said, “I think Sogang University has suitable facilities and programs for students with physical disabilities. I compared universities in Seoul and I chose this university. So far, I have been quite impressed. More importantly, I have been treated with upmost respect by both students and professors. Unfortunately, many students with physical impairments at other universities feel uncomfortable when asking their university for additional assistance. Many people think that helping people with disabilities is like doing them a favor, instead of treating them like ordinary people. At Sogang University, however, when we ask for extra help, the administration does not view us as being a special case. They simply help us as they would other students. In this regard, Sogang University is by far the best university in Korea, and I am extremely happy here.”
Sogang University holds a meeting for faculty members and students’ parents every year, and students with disabilities are given the opportunity to voice their suggestions for improvement. The administration listens intently and acts upon their suggestions, providing more suitable facilities and programs from admission to graduation. Even a professor with a physical disability is appointed to lead the university’s drive to create a better learning environment for students with physical impairments. As a result, administration officials are always aware of what needs to be done to successfully meet the needs of these students. The team leader of the department for disabled student services said, “This year, we have a plan to build a support center on campus. My predecessor helped students with disabilities in so many ways, and I intend to do the same. I am planning to suggest that the university hire professional social workers for the newly-built support center. That way, Sogang University can provide high-quality services.” Clearly, Sogang University is leading the way, and other Korean universities should do their best to emulate its successful programs.
In 2010, Korea University actually received the top ranking for its commitment to students with physical impairments. The assessment criteria, however, are quite vague. Many programs and facilities for students with disabilities are, in fact, not very helpful. Universities across the country need to listen to these students directly and be attentive to their needs, as Sogang University has successfully done.
Many renowned universities around the world have successfully met the needs of students with disabilities. The University of California-Berkeley, for example, has earned an excellent reputation for providing both suitable facilities and educational programs for students with disabilities. In fact, many well-known universities in the United States have set new standards by not only making their campuses more accessible, but also ensuring that these students have the same opportunities to enjoy campus life as other students.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison is another reputable university in the United States that has successfully accommodated students with physical impairments. These students are provided personal assistants who help them understand the lectures and take notes in class. At the beginning of each semester, they get the chance to choose their assistant on their own. Moreover, the University of Wisconsin-Madison established a campus network for the students with special needs, integrating the students’ respective departments.
How does Dongguk University compare? Currently, Dongguk University does not have adequate facilities for students with physical disabilities. Recently, however, the university has taken steps to meet their needs. Wheelchair access ramps have been built near the entrances to buildings, and in Wonhen Hall, a new elevator has been installed. However, the university has a long way to go to fully meet the needs of these students.
At present, 16 students with physical disabilities attend Dongguk University. Cho Sung-hwan of the Student Service Team said, “There are 16 students with physical impairments currently studying at Dongguk University, but none of them are severely disabled. Normally, because of the geographical location of the campus, these students undergo serious hardships, and most of them decide to leave the university at the beginning of the semester. Most of these students entered Dongguk University by taking the standard entrance exams.” Despite the high dropout rate, Dongguk University has supported union activities and established programs to help students with disabilities improve their academic performance.
Dongguk University currently operates three programs to meet the needs of students with disabilities. First, it provides tutoring and ghostwriting services. Second, the university helps students employ professional stenographers and sign language interpreters. Finally, distance education programs are also made available. Cho Sung-hwan said, “I think the students with disabilities do not experience inconveniences at Dongguk University. There have not been any complaints recently, and none of them entered the university by special academic admission.”
Just enforcing the new regulations, however, does not mean that the university is fully meeting the needs of these students. Ahn Sung-ki, majoring in political science and diplomacy, raised some concerns about integrating students with disabilities into the university’s standard academic programs. “If full integration is implemented immediately, I think many students with physical impairments will be kept at arm’s length by their classmates. With a low level of awareness among general students about students with disabilities, these students with special needs might feel alienated. I think it would be better to carry out the integration program gradually.”
Dongguk University will certainly need to take appropriate actions to ensure success. First, because of the inconveniences involved in attending classes on campus, students with severe disabilities might prefer to take online classes. In addition, the university will need to build suitable break areas for students with physical impairments. Seoul National University, for example, built special lounges for students in 2009. Until that time, suitable rest areas were scarce, while other students had numerous options. Gradual measures such as these would certainly bring harmony and unity to all students.
Students with physical disabilities deserve fairness and equal opportunity. Their demands are not pleas for help, but merely their right. It is time to change our perception of these students with physical impairments. They are not just people in need of help. They are students, just like you and me.
Kim Jong-ha, Kang Aa-young firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
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