The University of Seoul (UOS) is the only public university supported by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in Korea. Because of this unique position, the UOS emphasizes societal value. The educational objectives of the UOS also demonstrate that the university is trying to make students into leaders who can help improve the lives and culture of Seoul citizens while participating in the development of the country and human society. To pursue these values, students who have entered the UOS since 2015 are required to perform at least 30 hours of community service before graduation.
In interviews with The Hankyoreh newspaper in October 26 and Seoul Shinmun newspaper in August 25, Yun-hi Won, president of the UOS, repeatedly pointed out that the UOS is further demonstrating its dedication to civil society by establishing the UOS Lifelong Education Center and the Graduate School of Public Health. The UOS projects itself as the university which is the pride of Seoul, and thus as an institution that helps Seoul citizens. However, we may ask, are these efforts effective inside the campus? What does the UOS actually do for students with disabilities? In this article, The UOS Times focuses on students with disabilities on campus, those who need more assistance than most students. Further, we examine UOS’ welfare programs and compare them with those of other universities in Korea and overseas.
Starting Line: Admission of Students with Disabilities
There are very few students with disabilities at the UOS - 19 are enrolled this academic year, which is 0.02 percent of the school’s 9,516 students. They now study in various majors. Therefore, it is difficult for students without disabilities to know which buildings their classmates with disabilities are using or which activities they participate in. However, no matter how many disabled students are now attending our university, suitable facilities and welfare provided to help them will be important to attain a normal school life. If we look more closely, we can find out how the UOS tries to help disabled students and which points make them feel less comfortable on campus.
There is a College Entrance Examination called Equal Opportunity Entrance Admission at the UOS, and admission is separated into three parts, with three different targeted applicants. Among these, Equal Opportunity Entrance Admission III is mainly for students with disabilities. Only ten such applicants are admitted in 2015, and applicants who apply for this can choose any major in the UOS except in the College of Arts and Physical Education or the College of Liberal Studies. To apply for admission, applicants who have certified their disabilities should obtain certain scores on the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), as specified by the UOS. As of 2015, students who want to apply in Liberal Studies have to attain higher than second grade on the CSAT in at least two subjects: part B of the Korean section part A of the Mathematics section, the English section, and the Social Studies section. Students applying for Natural Sciences should attain higher than third grade in at least three sections: part A of Korean, part B of Mathematics, and all of English and Science. Other universities such as Kyeong Hee University and Hanyang University have set relatively low criteria to those of the UOS. There are no criteria concerning CSAT scores. Regarding whether the UOS requires almost similar scores for students without disabilities compared to those universities, the criteria of the UOS toward students with disabilities is rather strict. This may be a disadvantage for students with disabilities who would like to enter the UOS.
Systems Assisting Students with Disabilities
After students with disabilities enter the UOS and start campus life, the Support Center for Disabled Students largely takes care of their overall welfare. The Support Center does not only serve students who are physically challenged, but also those facing psychological challenges, and those who are diagnosed with disabilities due to less common conditions such as narcolepsy, a sleep disorder. It mostly focuses on what these students have to adapt to in campus life. First, it provides assistants both on and off campus. Assistants mainly help their classmates with disabilities to take notes or open books with magnifying glasses or projection technology. They also help students with disabilities when they go to other places or need support in their assignments. The center also lends them assistive equipment and asks professors to modify exam conditions, such as length or location of exam, including provision of a separate classroom if needed by a student with disabilities. Furthermore, it helps students with long, difficult commutes by giving them priority consideration for living in the campus dormitory. Besides this systematic welfare, the Support Center cooperates with Administrative Offices such as the Office of Admissions Affairs and the Office of General Administration to improve campus facilities or to confirm the identities of students with disabilities.
In order to understand the present situation, The UOS Times met a student who has a disability, Tae-hyeon Kim (Dept. of Civil Engineering, ’07) and asked him about his experience with UOS’ welfare system. He told us that the school has been very cooperative and helpful with requests from students with disabilities. The students frequently have meetings with the Support Center in the form of counselling, and this is possible because there are not many students with disabilities in our school. He expressed satisfaction with the assistance provision for his classes, as well. What Kim especially liked was that he could replace an exam with an assignment. He also spoke of the assistants who help students with disabilities in his classes if he needs or wants them. Overall, he expressed no dissatisfaction with the Center.
Basic Deficiencies inside the UOS
Despite these efforts, there are fundamental shortcomings at the Support Center for Disabled Students. There is a lack of experts for students with disabilities, and there seem to be difficulties accessing or contacting the Support Center. It is undeniable that a surge of students with disabilities might be possibly a disaster for the university, since they would not be able to handle more than the number they serve now.
There is a lack of experts for students with disabilities. Kyeong-ok Park, the manager of the Center, told The UOS Times that she does not have any special certification for serving the disabled. Her actual position in the UOS is counselor at the Student Counseling Center. There are three graduate students who are in charge of communicating with disabled students at the lounge for the disabled, located on the first floor of the General Lecture and law Institute, but they are also not majoring in social welfare. There are no specific professional qualifications for working with the disabled, so any graduate student at the UOS can work with the Center. And since their working time is not set, these volunteer workers take turns at the lounge in their spare time. In addition, paid workers in the Center are contract workers or part timers. What they manage is not related to their majors or previous training, meaning they are not sufficiently professional enough, and that they may quit their positions at anytime.
Thus, the frequent change in operators sometimes confuses students who call the Center to ask for help with a problem. She also pointed out, “Many disabled students complain because every member of the Center is temporary. Students with visual disabilities express the most difficulty because they cannot recognize operators just by listening to a voice, and one totally blind student complained a lot when he was at the UOS.” In addition, student assistants do not have a deep understanding of the disabilities that these students face.
Even though all workers, before they actually work, have to complete a short preparation course on common problems that they will encounter working with these students, the course focuses on theoretical aspects, not actual cases or practices, such as learning sign language for hearing-impaired students, or specific difficulties that each disabled student experiences. There seems to be only one task that student assistants can contribute to their classmates with disabilities: manage study materials and assist them during classes.
There is also a problem about accessibility to the Center. The Support Center is affiliated with the Student Counseling Center, which may limit student’s access, and even its existence is not listed on the Counseling Center website. Park pointed out that it is difficult to make a separate website because the number of disabled students is relatively small. Nevertheless, they have been trying, she said, to gain support for a separate site. Indeed, they are planning to open a full page that will be accessed through the Counseling Center website from February of next year. She pointed out that the school’s response to such requests is slow; many requirements are not implemented even though the UOS is quite open to the opinions of students and teaching staff. Students who report their disability to school when they first entered it face less difficulty than those who become disabled after entering it because the school have already known them well, including their majors and their needs in overall school life. However, students who receive a disability after entering the UOS may wind up isolated from the school and live in difficulty, unless the school can actively seek them out and prepare sufficient means for contacting the Center. Poor access to the Center can directly affect the well-being of all students with disabilities. Although the Center provides several customized systems for these students, these services are useless if students cannot learn what help is available to them, or how to apply.
Although there are only a few difficulties with campus life for disabled students, there are some points where the UOS welfare system could be improved. Dong-gu Lee (Dep. of Economics, ’12), who is helping Tae-hyeon Kim, pointed out some of the shortcomings that he has found in the system, from the perspective of someone sitting next to a classmate facing physical challenges.
Lee met Kim in a general class and had a chance to help him without receiving any reward. He said, “There used to be assistants hired at the school level, but from this semester, official helpmates are hired only at the national level.” He continued, “There are various kinds of state scholarships, and applying for more than one is not possible. This means that if someone wants to be a helpmate for the disabled, and he or she is already receiving another scholarship, he or she can’t apply to be an official helpmate.” He said this limits students to be an assistant. He added that this restriction is creating problems in promoting the program. The number of assistants should be increased, but few students know of its existence. Most students do not know where or how to apply for it. The school needs to promote the advantages of being an assistant and solve the kinds of problems that Lee pointed out. There also needs to be stronger training for assistants. Other than these kinds of problems with assistants, Lee added, there should be more consideration for handicapped students in general throughout the campus community.
Are the UOS students Truly Aware of Classmates with Disabilities?
To become a warm-hearted and comfortable university for students with disabilities, the UOS should not only provide sufficient accommodations and equipment, but UOS students also should develop awareness. In order to estimate present levels of awareness, The UOS Times conducted a survey of 110 students with questions about school facilities and the overall welfare system. The respondents did not know about disabilities. Looking at the first question, shown in Question 1, around a half of the students thought the UOS was not qualified to assist handicapped students. There are several reasons why this perception may be true.
The second question asked students for details about school facilities, thus revealing perceptions about shortcomings. More than 80 percent thought the attached desks and chairs in many classrooms are the least convenient to access. Through this survey, The UOS Times also found out that handicapped students felt uncomfortable in bright light ? especially students who use magnifying glasses because glare from the room lights obscures material. They expressed a similar problem with the whiteboard. Even students without visual disabilities have sometimes have a difficulty viewing whiteboards because of reflected light, but it is often much worse for the disabled with vision. Classrooms with reflective whiteboards were pointed out to be a problem by eight percents, and those with unshaded light, by 11 percents in the survey. Since school administration does not provide information about the environments or accommodations of specific classrooms, students with disabilities may face difficulties taking class in such classrooms.
Answers to the last question provide some hope, however. About 85 percent of respondents said they do not feel uncomfortable around students with disabilities. Perhaps more students would answer that they are somewhat uncomfortable if more had a chance to take classes with the handicapped, but still, it is encouraging that students are open-minded about the conditions of their classmates with disabilities. However, our school should not be satisfied with this. The greater recognition must be achieved long before any possible confrontation with students who have disabilities. It is true that there are a small number of handicapped students in our school, but preparing for them beforehand is important, since change will not happen instantly. What is important in living with the disabled is empathy. All of us should know of disability - how to deal with challenges and why an empathic society is necessary. Cooperating with the Support Center, a campaign to increase recognition of students with disabilities would be like killing two birds with one stone. The Center can advertise its own existence, and at the same time, students will have greater awareness and knowledge not only about handicapped students, but also about being good members of society on the whole.
The Situation at Other Universities in Korea
To check the present situation of welfare systems for the disabled at other Korean universities, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has conducted periodic research, called Research on the Actual Condition of Education Welfare for Disabled Undergraduates, since 2008. MOE assesses welfare systems in three categories: requirements for admission, teaching and learning, and facilities. Assessments are conducted at all universities with more than one disabled student and issues four grades from the “best” to “needs improvement.” The UOS has improved since the first assessment in 2008, when it was rated as needing improvement. Last year, in the latest evaluation, the UOS received an average score, 74.9 points. Contributing to this lower score was the Selection part, which is not directly related to the overall welfare of disabled students. The UOS also received a low score in the Facility section, since some buildings and accommodations are quite old and do not meet standards for the disabled.
However, in the teaching and learning section, the UOS received a high score, offsetting the lower ratings. Such a moderate score was attributed to the fact that there are only a few students with disabilities enrolled at the UOS, making it easy for the Center to focus on each student’s life and needs. If the number of disabled students increases, the Center will need another method for managing them, and with current programs, that will not be possible.
What about other universities who receive higher ratings than the UOS? They also have limitations, due to different budgets, different numbers of students, and different conditions for their facilities. But bench marking their cases is not a bad idea. Our school has some problems, so we brought several universities into comparison to learn from their successes. The first comparison is with Seoul National University (SNU). This university shares many conditions in common with the UOS, but welfare for the disabled has been rated as superior. Since its campus is so large, SNU provides transport for the disabled. Also, there are also special considerations such as priority selection of seating, guide books about disabilities for all students and professors, and e-mails describing the needs for helping the disabled. Other than this, the lounge for disabled students is very well organized, with separate spaces for genders and a study room. The hiring of assistants is more systematic at SNU, too. They hire professional assistants such as stenographers - a shorthand typist - if needed. There are certainly many points to learn from SNU.
The second case study is Korea Nazarene University (KORNU). Since this school has many physically handicapped students, the overall system is very well-organized. With so many disabled, KORNU cannot solve all of their problems internally, so they employ several experts on disability, thus reducing friction in dealing with problems. What is special about KORNU is that they have a cultural experience program for the disabled. KORNU’s philosophy toward disability is that the disabled should have a variety of experiences just as people without disabilities do.
Comparison with Overseas: For Better Environment
While comparing the UOS with other universities, we learned that some Korean universities have more organized systems for the disabled. The comparison shows not only the particular features of each university for accommodating the disabled - features which the UOS should notice - but it also reveals the gaps between well-organized universities and others not so well organized. Many universities still have a long way to go for before they can provide more advanced support to disabled students. As we mentioned, there is a MOE evaluation about the overall systems for the disabled. MOE has refined its criteria by reprioritizing each factor so that they emphasize systematic support rather than facilities. However, the criteria themselves focus on the present situation at each university and do not provide solutions for the problems it identifies. To improve the MOE evaluation, there should be a certain legal framework in place so that every university is mandated to provide minimal qualified welfare systems for the disabled no matter how much budget each university has or whether some universities provide better facilities than others.
In the United Kingdom (UK), there is an effective legal policy called the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). According to www.gov.uk, the British government’s official website, the DSA is a policy for highly-educated students who have disabilities and live in England. Those who have long-term health conditions, mental health conditions, or specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia can apply for the DSA. Available support depends on need and is not limited by income. If a student applies, the government will grant a subsidy to the organization related to the disability so that they can appropriate a budget for specialized equipment, non-medical helpers, and other needs. Based on the DSA, each university in the UK designs and implements its own support programs.
The United States (U.S.) also provides a policy called the Federal TRIO Programs, administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The overall purpose and the system of TRIO are quite similar with those of the DSA. It embraces not only disabled students, but also students from underprivileged backgrounds, thus providing opportunities to more people.
With these solid foundations, students with disabilities in the UK or the U.S. can have some freedom from anxiety over costs incurred due to their challenges in campus life. Likewise, the Korean government needs to make laws that provide guidelines for each school’s administration and that encourage them to make better environments for disabled undergraduates.
There is a point we should think about before assessing programs for the disabled at the UOS. Let’s start from the base line of human condition. Everyone has a disability, a challenge that they must overcome as they continue through life. Most people think of disability as something that afflicts those who cannot do anything by themselves, and who need someone’s constant help. However, while this is true for some people with special or severe disabilities, there is a disability of some sort in every person. Those who have difficulties seeing without glasses or who have temporarily broken a leg are also people with disabilities. Those who struggle against anxiety and depression are also considered to suffer from disability. In other words, it is wrong for people to judge or to differentiate others as disabled; most people also have at least one disability, and they are different only in how they choose to overcome or compensate for their disabilities in their daily lives. By adopting this more inclusive attitude toward disability, we may find more sympathy for those who truly need extra accommodation.
In the interview with Dong-gu Lee, he said that most disabled students are eager to be highly educated at the UOS, and they focus on getting good grades. No matter how much they desire to study, it is impossible for them to succeed in their majors if their school does not provide positive assistance for their daily lives. To make good on its vision, “Leading Social Changes with Warm-Hearted Sharing,” The UOS must first show warm-hearted support to students with disabilities, the minority that could be left behind by indifference. It is still difficult for the UOS to improve circumstances for disabled students. The fundamental reason for this difficulty is the lack of systems or facilities, which in turn results from the lack of governmental assistance. To improve the situation, not only the efforts inside the UOS, but also the level of help at other universities, and more support from the government are required. Hand-in-hand with the government and society at large, the UOS can achieve a deeper societal value, the ultimate goal of the university.