29 September 2012

#H810 Financial Support for Disabled Students in Flanders

Photo Credit: Klasse
This week we look at forms of financial support that disabled students receive in higher education. As Cambodia does not have a system for financial support for disabled students to study higher education, I decided to look at the situation in the Flemish Community.

Flanders does have a wide range of support mechanisms to help disabled students succeed in higher education. However, findings one's way through the maze of involved agencies can be daunting.     
Additionally, HE in Flanders is heavily subsidized already with annual tuition fees for most courses not exceeding 500 euros.

In the UK the newly approved Equality Act requires anticipation, compared with the previous Disability Act that required reasonable adjustment. The principle of anticipation seems not yet to be embedded in Flemish legislation, although various institutions seem to work on Universal Design Principles, to make all courses and course materials more inclusive.

1. Legal basis for financial and other support 

- The UN convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified by Belgium in 2009. 

- The Participation Decree (link in Dutch) (2004) intends to stimulate participation to higher education for all students, including those with a disability or learning difficulty. The decree stipulates that each institution should make adjustments for disabled students.  However, as the adjustments are not clearly defined, students remain dependent on the commitment of the HE institution.

- The Flexibility Decree (link in Dutch)(2004) provides the framework for differentiated and flexible learning trajectories.  It intends to improve access to HE for disabled students.

- The Flemish Decree on Equal Opportunities (link in Dutch)(2008) prohibits discrimination based on among others physical or genetic characteristics, disability or health situation. The Decree also makes it compulsory for the institution to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate students with a disability. 

- The Flemish Decree on the Financing of Higher Education (link in Dutch)(2008) stipulates that HE institutions can receive additional funds for students with a disability. A condition is that students need to be registered with the Vlaams Agentschap voor Personen met een Handicap (VAPH). Students with a learning difficulty such as dyslexia however are not eligible for financial support. For these students the schools themselves have a budget to pay for extra support.

2. Financial support is provided by the Vlaams Agentschap voor Personen met een Handicap (VAPH), Flemish government agency.  Various non-profit agencies play a complementary role. Higher Education in Flanders is overwhelmingly publicly organized.

- The VAPH provides:
  • A budget for a pedagogical or technical assistant (can be a fellow student). There are limitations on what this budget can be used for, as it’s not intended for adapting learning materials, having someone take notes during lessons or helping finding resources in the library. 
  • Disabled students can request a ‘Personal Assistance Budget’ (PAB). This budget can be used by the student to organize and finance assistance. The student can employ one or more assistants to help with studies or daily activities such as cooking, transport… 
  • Reimbursement of Screenreader software
  • Within this agency there's an unit that deals with assistive technologies and interpreters for deaf and hard of hearing students.
  • This is a non-profit organisation that coordinates the deployment of interpreters for deaf and hard of hearing.  Some interpreters use VGT (Flemish Sign Language), others write down what is being said ('Schrijftolk').
Disabled students can be eligible for study financing, depending on their parents’ income. This is only for ‘initial academic courses’ such as bachelor and master courses, but not for postgraduate courses. As mentioned before, fees for postgraduate courses are not limited as those for bachelor and master courses are. 

- Epos vzw is a non-profit organisation that provides financial support for disabled students who want to study abroad under the Erasmus programme. The organisation provides an additional budget on top of the regular scholarship to cover additional costs.

It should be noted that registration fees at Flemish institutions for higher education are notably low compared with those at UK institutions. Most Bachelor and Master courses have an annual fee of approx. 500 euro. Only postgraduate courses can be much more expensive. 

3. Barriers for accessing support

- Students need a recently issued medical certificate for accessing various kinds of support. This renders disclosure compulsory and may also provide a financial barrier for some students.

- The type of assistance available and required procedure to obtain assistance varies between institutions and even between departments of an institution.

- Frequently there’s a lack of communication about the available support. For example, a list with possible adjustments or assistive technologies is not always available. Students are requested to ask what type of assistance they need, but are not always aware of all technical and other types of assistance available.

- Some institutions have a list with possible adjustments and support and let students choose what they need. This seems to be perceived as positive as individual needs are recognized. However, students need to select the type of support early, and can not always accurately assess what they would need.

- Many learning difficulties such as dyslexia are not recognized by the VAPH.

- Support seems to be scattered among various ministries and organisations and there are many rules for each type of support. It may seem quite daunting for disabled students and their families to find their way in the maze of support mechanisms. Fortunately, most institutions have one person per department who helps with disabled students with their study trajectory.


The 'Support Center for Inclusive Higher Education' (Steunpunt for Inclusief Hoger Onderwijs' (SIHO) - link to limited English version) is a inter-universitary knowledge centre for studying with a disability or learning difficulty.  It's an excellent source of information and contains various studies and testimonies from students (written and video, both in Dutch,), teachers with a disability (in Dutch) and lecturers.
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