The University of Bio Bio, a public university with 9,235 students on its two campuses—one in Chillan and one in Concepción—has initiated a project to provide services for students with disabilities. Presently, there are 12 students studying at the University of Bio-Bio, who have a physical or sensory disability. However, the buildings are not wheelchair accessible nor are they accessible for students with visual impairments. Admission into the university is based on entrance exams that are not adapted to the diabled. As a result, many students with disabilities (physical, sensory and learning disabilities) are excluded from higher education.
Of the 13 regions in Chile, the Bio Bio Region has the second highest percentage of people with disabilities. Following the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in July 2008, Chile promulgated the National Disability Law which came into effect in January 2010.
Two professors from the Chillan campus, Carlos Ossa, whose expertise is in disability and quality of life, and Hugo Lira, who focuses on universal design from the Chillan campus invited Tara Flanagan, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, to help them to begin a University initiative to implement this law. During her twenty days there, she held workshops with professors, worked with mentors (students selected to assist the students with disabilities), gave seven public talks and visited schools. While at the Concepción campus, Flanagan participated in a video conference with Peruvian universities.
A strategy Flanagan used with faculty was to highlight their own diversity. She had them write down the conditions under which they were best able to learn. Comparing their replies illustrated how all teaching has to be adapted to optimize learning and to accommodate different needs, something professors already do. A mathematics professor presented a challenge—“How can you teach blind students higher mathematics where the students need to see the problem?” She replied that there were both high and low technology methods of dealing with this. High tech would involve an embossing printer; low tech, glitter glue.
More than 60 people directly benefited from this cooperation between the University of Bio-Bio and AWBC including the 12 students with disabilities, 30 faculty members and 10 mentors who received training, and the eight TESL student translators, who provided translation services for Flanagan.
“Now I’m going to study Spanish. But in fact, having to use translators turned out to be a good thing. The eight TESL students didn’t just translate, they became advocates of inclusive education.” – Tara Flanagan
Flanagan will continue to be connected with the University of Bio-Bio through this project. She hopes to set up a teaching practice exchange with the University of Bio-Bio. She is also working on a project to empower both Chilean parents and their adult children who are on the autism spectrum.
Tara Flanagan, Ph.D. (McGill), is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at McGill University.