AUC Provides Supportive Learning Environment for People with Disabilities

The new staircase at AUC's swimming pool will increase access to the University's facilities
The new staircase at AUC's swimming pool will increase access to the University's facilities

According to the United Nations, one in seven people worldwide have some form of mental or physical disability. Eighty percent of those with disabilities live in developing countries and have limited accessible to resources and medical care. In an effort to empower people with disabilities and increase awareness, the United Nations delegated December 3 as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The theme for 2015 is Inclusion Matters: Access and Empowerment for People of all Abilities.

In Egypt, AUC has some of the best facilities and resources to accommodate students with disabilities, and they are improving every year.  

Adaptive Technology Corner

AUC hosts two adaptive technology corners with innovative software and hardware to assist students who are visually impaired. These include: Job Access with Speech (JAWS), a screen reader that converts text on the screen to synthesized speech; and Kurzweil 1000, used to digitize print materials such as library books or articles, class assignments and exams into a format that is readable by JAWS. There is also a braille printer that prints e-books, PDF and even Arabic Text into braille. Braille Note Display is another portable device for note taking in braille that students can use in class. In addition to Plextalk, a pocket-size, portable device for audio recordings during lectures.

Currently, seven students, including two graduate students, use the technologies for their studies at AUC, ranging in majors from philosophy and political science to economics. Marwa Mansour, assistant director of operations at University Academic Computing Technologies, pointed out that a variety of technologies are needed to accommodate students from different backgrounds. “Some students are taught to use Braille, some know how to use JAWS very well and some only depend on recording,” said Mansour. “We teach the students how to use the various technologies.”

Each visually impaired student has JAWS software installed for free on their personal laptops for the duration of their time at AUC, however more licenses are needed for newly enrolled students.  To further support people with disabilities, plans are underway to acquire portable magnifiers, specifically with low vision students to use in class and invest in more sophisticated scanning technology to translate written documents into digital files that can be converted to audio or Braille.  UACT already has a part-time visually impaired delegate, Ahmed Abdel Tawab, who trains students on the JAWS software and assists them in scanning and printing of material, software installation and setup.  However, since demand for their services are increasing, UACT hopes to hire an assistant to help students with the technology.

Accessibility on Campus

In accordance with the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, AUC ensures that individuals with disabilities have equal access to services, programs, resources and activities offered by the University. This encompasses both physical access and academic modifications to enable people with disabilities to realize their full potential.

The New Cairo campus is designed to be accessible to people with disabilities. All campus areas are accessible by wheelchairs, and club cars are available for transport around campus with prior arrangement. Recently, at the Sports Center, a specialized, sloped staircase has been installed in the Paul B. Hannon Swimming Pool to ensure that people with disabilities have an easy and accessible means of entering and exiting the pool. 

“Our aim is to better serve all members of the AUC community and allow people with disabilities easier access in and out of the pool,” said Louise Bertini, manager of athletics for aquatics.

Support for Learning Disabilities

The Adaptive Technology Corner and accessible campus facilities are essential for students who have physically disabilities. However, not all students have disabilities that are visible to others.  

“Learning disabilities are hidden disabilities” explained Alexandra Gazis, assistant director for student disability services in the Office of Student Support. “Students with learning disabilities don’t only need academic support. They also need social and personal support”

Learning disabilities includes disorders like dysgraphia and dyslexia, as well as attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. With a recent gift to establish the Ismail Fund for Students with Learning Disabilities, the Office of Student Support has expanded its services to provide all-around support to ensure students can make the most of their time at AUC. A psychologist who is an expert in learning disabilities will now be available for students, as well as a licensed assessor who evaluates the students, makes recommendations and helps develop a detailed plan, including steps toward personal, academic and social goals.  

“We already give a lot of support to students, but with the new fund, we asked what can we give differently? Which other dimensions can we include?” explained Gazis. “We have services and academic support, but we needed a more tailored program for students with disabilities, including personal growth opportunities, group support, yearly plans and necessary software.”   

Currently, 18 students have registered at the Office of Student Suppoort and have been professionally assessed at the University. “There are many more students who are given support through AUC’s mentoring unit, but they don’t want to go through the assessment because they are reluctant and afraid of the stigma,” said Abeer Abdelraouf, learning disability officer. “There are a lot of other students we don’t know about who, because of the stigma, won’t approach us at all.”  

To combat the stigma and discrimination of mental health challenges, the Office of Student Support is vigilant about holding workshops and awareness sessions for the entire community. These sessions not only shed light on the different types of mental health issues, they also educate staff, faculty and students on how to best help people who are struggling with them. “We have held two awareness sessions this semester, and we plan on meeting with faculty members to give recommendations and explain how to move forward with the next steps,” noted Gazis.

The office is also working on acquiring more sophisticated software with multiple licenses so it can be useful to more than one student. “Most issues fall within writing, spelling and reading,” Gazis said. “We need software to assist students in finishing exams or assignments within the time limit of the class.” Currently UACT has some of this software, but students have to go to the library to use it. 

AUC’s Student Disability Services Unit, Gazis added, provides services to students with disabilities to not only ensure that all activities and programs are accessible, but to collaborate with students, faculty and staff in enhancing the self-determination of people with disabilities to enhance their chances of academic success.

“AUC is one of the first universities in the Middle East to have an office specifically for students with disabilities,” Gazis pointed out. “In Egypt, I can see other universities looking to us as an example and recognizing that yes, there are students with disabilities and trying to see what they can do to help them in their academic careers. Our aim is to create a campus environment where students are viewed on the basis of ability rather than disability.”