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The Jagiellonian University continues to increase its accessibility for people with special needs

Since 2020 the Jagiellonian University in Kraków has been implementing the project 'Responsible Support and Sustainable Development' co-financed by the European Union under the European Social Fund as part of the Operational Programme Knowledge Education Development.

The aim of the project is to increase the university’s accessibility for people with special needs and raise disability awareness among the academic community. To this end, the Jagiellonian University continues to  improve the level of adaptation of its physical and architectural environment, current procedures, organisational structure, individual specialised services and educational support to suit the expectations of people with disabilities.

Accessible architectural solutions

The architectural achievement of the project was the extension of the building that is the seat of the Jagiellonian University Didactics Support Centre at ul. Ingardena 6 in Kraków. The application of universal design principles made it possible to create architectural space without barriers ensuring a high comfort of use for people with disabilities. The solutions employed are in line with the idea of social responsibility and have an educational value for other universities, setting a contemporary academic standard for the implementation of accessibility in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The building was awarded in the 2021 'Krakow without Barriers' competition in the category of accessible construction. 

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a logo of the project Responsible Support and Sustainable Development

Extensive training offer 

As part of the project, specialised training is offered for particular groups of recipients, i.e. university employees from across the country (working with people with special needs); undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students of the Jagiellonian University as well as the University teacher and administrative staff. Such training may help them to revise their stereotypical convictions about disability and provide them with good practice solutions in implementing inclusive education based on respect for the rights of people with disabilities.  The programme consists of regular, once-a-month training for staff of small and medium-sized universities that would like to extend their support for people with disabilities, as well as universities implementing projects under the ‘Accessible University’ competition of the National Centre for Research and Development.

Each training edition includes 7 modules on  how to work with students with special needs, assistive technologies, disability awareness and safety evacuation.  The participants are people holding a variety of university positions, with diverse experience, which facilitates an exchange of views and a joint discussion focusing on needs and specific solutions. The case studies presented by the participants prove particularly valuable and insightful. Graduates emphasise the high quality of the training, which is a product of the trainers’ long-term experience and continuous update of what they know about supporting people with disabilities; e.g. by analysing the accessibility solutions applied at Scandinavian universities (Denmark, Sweden and Finland), as they are considered the most advanced in this respect. The project involves study visits and international collaboration. So far, 28 training editions have been organised, which have been attended by more than 300 participants in total, and mutual collaboration continues by means of ongoing consultations regarding solutions implemented at other universities. There has been a very positive response to training courses, which increased awareness about the accessibility of universities, thereby improving the quality of education across the country.

The second group included in the training programme consists of the students and doctoral students of the Jagiellonian University, who undergo online training organised once a month. The aim is to help them develop their own potential, with a particular focus on methods facilitating studying. Training sessions focus on such topics as stress management, effective time management, creativity development and tools for effective learning. Since 2020, as many as 29 training editions have been offered to 312 university students. 

The academic staff of the Jagiellonian University may enrol in separate online training on how to use free software supporting the University students and staff and how to adapt educational materials to the needs of visually impaired students.  They are in particular intended for the academic staff who have or may have contact with students with disabilities. Thanks to such training, university teachers may improve their competences in the area of disability awareness and offer better quality classes. Additionally, there are e-learning courses for the University administration employees and academic staff, which are focused on raising their awareness of the needs of people with disabilities as well as on evacuating people with disabilities. The course on raising disability awareness presents basic facts about disability as seen from the perspective of the Jagiellonian University, which wants to maintain the highest standards of its activities, including respect for every person. Pursuant to the idea of social responsibility, such respect should manifest itself in the inclusion of people from vulnerable and excluded groups in the mainstream academic life. 

The course on the evacuation of people with disabilities addresses the challenge of creating a safe environment for people with disabilities who cannot leave the building independently in the case of a fire. The aim of this course is to educate its participants on existing solutions as well as on how to respond and assist people with disabilities in a fire emergency. One of the course modules will also be dedicated to the University students. 

It should be mentioned that the project funds were used to purchase 15 evacuation chairs, which were placed in selected university buildings. Training was also provided on how to evacuate people with special needs using these chairs. 

Further training is intended for site editors and candidates for site editors of the Jagiellonian University Portal. The training programme focuses on the knowledge and skills needed to create websites accessible to all users. A system to create and manage accessibility declarations on the sites based on the Jagiellonian University Portal was developed and implemented, too. Currently, there are more than 500 different sites based on the Jagiellonian University Portal. According to the Act on digital accessibility of websites and mobile applications of public entities, every website operating within the University should have an accessibility declaration. A special tool had to be created in order to monitor so many sites and declarations so that they could be managed in a systemic and, if possible, automated manner.

Digital solutions and applications supporting education

Many project activities aim to develop disability-friendly digital solutions and applications to support the study process. An achievement of the project is the DORADA portal, which supports the learning skills of students and the academic community. Diverse popular science articles discuss, among other things, mental health prophylaxis, the need of physical activity, a healthy lifestyle or helpful tips when looking for a job. The DORADA portal also offers short educational videos explaining the operation of various learning applications and programmes. The portal users may also complete short self-tests to gain insight into their talents or strengths and weaknesses. It is possible to ask questions on chat, both in Polish and English; and the chat is also available as a mobile app. The DORADA portal was created above all to support students, including those with various needs and disabilities, in their study process and personal development. It is a compendium of knowledge intended for members of various academic communities, as well as a source of inspiration as to where to find more information on the topics covered. It also includes individual online consultations for the Jagiellonian University undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students who may report their needs with regard to studying and the educational process support. 

An extensive online survey system, which was created in order to assess architectural accessibility, provided comprehensive information on 130 facilities of the Jagiellonian University and the Jagiellonian University Medical College. This information will be used to create a public website providing a comprehensive overview of the architectural accessibility of individual facilities. The navigation and information system deployed includes navigation transmitters located in 28 buildings and a mobile application, NawigUJ. This system will serve as a valuable tool helping people with special needs to navigate and move around the University buildings. 

An application to facilitate the management of interpretation into the Polish Sign Language for the Jagiellonian University students is yet another achievement of the project. In this application, a student who needs interpretation provides information on the specific classes in which he or she would like to use the services of an interpreter. The coordinator forwards this request to the interpreters. The interpreter who is available registers in the app to interpret the class. Thanks to the application, finding an interpreter is quicker and more efficient. An interpreter of the Polish Sign Language has been hired to provide interpretation at many student activities and important events in the academic world.

A database application is being developed to improve the service of students. It will facilitate the process of applying for, evaluating and granting various types of services offered by the Jagiellonian University Disability Support Service, which will be quicker and clearer for students, who will be regularly notified about the processing stage for their requests. The ambition is to develop a sophisticated application which includes many services and makes it possible to manage all the processes.

A mobile app for students and staff at the Jagiellonian University is about to be finalised and implemented. It will provide a range of solutions aiming to facilitate the study process and the organisation of study time.

Procedures available at the Jagiellonian University

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic there was a change of the task whose original aim was to develop a remote examination procedure for students who could not leave home for health reasons. The coronavirus pandemic compelled the University to develop such a procedure and ensure that all students could take their exams remotely. Now, there is technical support for online examinations in place and it is also possible to convert classes offered face-to-face to a remote form for students with health difficulties according to their individual needs.

With regard to staff, novel solutions which were designed and implemented include simplified procedures for signing documents and an accessible recruitment procedure for some positions. The ones that are still being developed involve individual evacuation plans and individual support programmes, individual training consultations regarding accessibility software and a register of accessible websites. One of the most important elements of the organisational changes designed is the precise formulation of rights and obligations of employees in the sphere of accessibility. Work has also been undertaken to prepare 'Accessible Work Culture' rules.  Guided by the quality of the didactic process, regulations, curricula and examination procedures are continuously updated in terms of accessibility. The training on health and safety in education for students was extended to include additional modules on the evacuation of people with disabilities. Documents and forms are also being adapted to an accessible form. 

Council for Responsible Support and Sustainable Development 

Every year, the Rector of the Jagiellonian University appoints the Council for Responsible Support and Sustainable Development. Currently, the Council has been serving its third term of office.  Council members meet on a regular basis (the meeting composition is subject to change) in order to monitor the results and impact of the project on the situation of people with disabilities and make the University authorities aware of the areas where more openness needs to be provided in a sustainable manner with regard to people with special needs. The Council is composed of university representatives, including experts in disability issues, representatives of the community acting for people with disabilities and students with disabilities.

Think tanks – ambitious and innovative solutions

The project also involves the creation of two think tanks, made up of experts, i.e. Universal Design and Tools for Workplace Accessibility. The Universal Design think tank focuses on influencing the social environment of universities in terms of universal design awareness among designers, architects and web developers. The Tools for Accessible Workplaces think tank, on the other hand, aims to disseminate the university’s accessibility experience in the business sector, establish cooperation with this sector with the focus on social responsibility, and, as a result, contribute to the creation of accessible workplaces. 

The Tools for Accessible Workplaces think tank was made up of representatives of Kraków’s universities, business sector and non-governmental organisations. The schedule of meetings and the work plan developed for the think tank includes, among other things, the exchange of good practice, experts’ presentations and an analysis of the possibility of closer cooperation between the university and business representatives with the common goal of supporting people with disabilities entering the labour market.

The upcoming year 2023 will be the final year of the Responsible Support and Sustainable Development project. This is when the tasks developed in the project will be finalised and concluded. Thanks to the implementation of all the tasks, the project has may have a significant impact on the process of making the Jagiellonian University more accessible to people with disabilities. In order to ensure its effectiveness, comprehensive measures are required in many areas, such as architectural design, communication and information, as well as IT. A large number of these measures have been implemented as part of the Responsible Support and Sustainable Development project. Overcoming barriers, in particular mental barriers, also plays a very important role in the process. Specialised training described above, designed for various groups of the Jagiellonian University academic community, as well as a wider audience, i.e. employees of various Polish universities and the community of people with disabilities from across Poland, has had an indisputable share in the elimination of such barriers.

About the author

Marta Bylica -  specialist, Information and Communication Accessibility at the Jagiellonian University Accessibility Centre. In the past, she adapted teaching materials to the needs of people with visual disabilities, currently she deals with the promotion, editing and proofreading of texts, as well as preparing publications for printing. Co-organizes events, ensuring their accessibility for people with disabilities. He edits the content published on JU Accessibility Centre websites and in social media.