“We are pro-diversity”
TUMstudinews: What is “barrier-free studying” all about?
Alain Kathola: For me, barrier-free studying means that TUM should help students who are disabled or chronically ill to complete a course of studies – if possible – without any problems. “Barrier-free” has, of course, many meanings. There are visible and invisible barriers that need to be eliminated. The issue is not about comprehensive rebuilding measures throughout the university buildings or about providing material we are not familiar with.
So it is those who are affected who have to express their needs themselves?
Autonomy is very important. Those who are affected have to contact us, to explain their situation and express what they need. Then, we consider what measures can be taken, involving the examination committees, the contact persons, the lecturers, and – most importantly – the affected peoples themselves.
I imagine that someone who is dependent on a wheelchair could, for instance, be assigned a caretaker…
That depends. I remember a client I had in 2008. He was a student of Chemistry in Garching. We took a look at the facilities together and he didn’t need any help at all. He wanted to do it all by himself. Someone like that doesn’t need assistance. Then, there was a student of Computer Science who asked whether someone could help him when it was snowing, as he was dependent on a wheelchair. Then, the faculty’s contact person regularly accompanied him from the subway station to the faculty.
Who exactly belongs to those who are affected?
There are various impairments. In 2012, the Studentenwerk published a study listing the various impairments, distinguishing between aspects of limited mobility and psychosomatic or psychiatric issues.
Is, for example, depression an issue as well?
Yes, definitely. Here, it is important to understand what a chronic disease is all about. This applies if an impairment lasts for more than six months. In this case, there is, so to speak, an invisible barrier. It isn’t easy to recognize whether a person is suffering from depression.
As this is so hard to tell, how can you provide support for someone who is suffering from depression?
He or she could, for example, ask for an extension of the examination period – a reduction of the workload in the course of studies, compared to his or her fellow students. A study consultant can help as well. If someone has Chron’s disease, for example, it is also possible to apply for an extension of the exam duration, as those who are affected often have to leave the room during an examination. There has to be some measure to make up for the impairment, or you’re automatically disadvantaged.
How many affected persons are there at TUM at the moment?
We don’t keep statistics, and we wouldn’t be allowed to – but there are more people who are struggling with invisible impairments than one might think. There is a study of the “Deutsches Studentenwerk” from the year 2012, stating that about eight percent of the students in Germany have some kind of impairment. This is quite a large number. You can imagine how many persons concerned there are at TUM.
At TUM, what are the areas that need special attention?
My clients are suffering from various disabilities, so we can’t really say that the people affected are in specific need for this or that. It really depends… But I think it’s a good thing that TUM has created this position, as a means to emphasize that we are pro-diversity. Of course, those who are affected have to be able to pass their exams on their own and to knuckle down, nonetheless.
What are your tasks at the service office?
There are several different tasks. I have to talk to people, to listen to their story and figure out how I can provide support – and I am able to rely on the “Klinikum rechts der Isar”, with which we have a well-functioning cooperation. The support of the examination committees and the faculties’ contact persons is very important as well. At TUM, every faculty has its own contact person for the disabled and the chronically ill. Thus, we are very well organized when it comes to solving the problems of those who are affected.
Do you have a lot to do?
Yes – and I must say that it is often past high time to take action when the people concerned turn up on my doorstep, meaning that they often had to endure enormous difficulties already. It’s quite troublesome to overcome the hurdle of coming out and asking us for help. If they address us, the problem is simply too big for them to solve it on their own – otherwise, they would have done so already. That’s my job.
Can you rely on support from within TUM?
Yes, definitely! There are the counseling and educational programs, and I would also like to mention my colleague Prof. Dr. Diepold. Being the TUM’s commissioner for persons with disabilities and chronic illnesses, he represents their needs on the level of university politics. I often need his help in connection with special cases or with bureaucratic matters. He is of so much help for me and my work here at the service office.
Does every university have a service office like this?
With regard to the aspect of inclusion, every university should at least have a point of contact for the disabled and the chronically ill.
(Interview: Verena Pongratz)
Alain M. G. Kathola was born in Kinshasa (Congo). He has been living in Germany for 25 years, and he studied Pedagogy, Psychology, and Sociology at the LMU München 15 years ago. Contact: Service Office for Disabled and Chronically Ill Students