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Studying with a disability: Early advice is important

Most universities offer special advising services to international students and students with handicaps or chronic illnesses. There are a number of technical terms which you ought to be familiar with. Depending on your country of origin, there are differences when it comes to financing your education.

by Florian Schubert

Signpost © Schubert/DAAD
Signpost . © Schubert/DAAD

If you want to study in Germany, you should seek academic advising as early as possible! Most universities offer special advising services to international students and students with handicaps or chronic illnesses. These services are offered by either the university’s “International Office” or the “Advising Office for Handicapped and Chronically Ill Students”. The advising centre is responsible for many areas related to your disability or sickness and your study course. Another important contact is the German Studentenwerk. On their website, you’ll find lots of helpful information and contacts to representatives for disabled persons at most German universities. They also offer advising sessions by telephone, e-mail or Skype, so you don’t have to meet with them in person.

In many university towns in Germany, there is a local Studentenwerk (student service organisation) which offers student services at one or more universities. This is the place you should contact if you require a handicapped-accessible room. If you have study-related questions regarding modified study and examination requirements (for compensating disadvantages), then you should contact your university directly.

Brochure
Brochure "Studium und Behinderung" . © Schubert/DAAD

Many technical terms

There are a number of technical terms which you ought to be familiar with. Two of these are “barrierefrei” (handicapped-accessible) and “Nachteilsausgleich” (compensation for disadvantages). “Handicapped-accessible“ means that places or modes of transportation can be used by disabled persons and that you can participate in all lectures, take e-learning courses and navigate websites despite having a disability.

Disabilities can often put you at a disadvantage when it comes to taking exams. Universities try to offset these by offering disabled students “compensation for disadvantages”. For example, the regulations allow you to use a computer instead of writing by hand. The compensation rules vary at each university and department – therefore, you should contact the university representative for disabled persons for more information.

It’s all about money

Depending on your country of origin, there are differences when it comes to financing your education. Studying in Germany with a handicap can become expensive very quickly. For example, if you need technical aids, assistance or a sign-language interpreter, you are generally responsible for obtaining and paying for these yourself. The university is not obliged to cover such expenses. If you need to take medication(s) on a regular basis for a chronic illness, you have to clarify whether your health insurance provider will continue paying for these medications for the duration of your studies in Germany.

If you participate in an exchange programme, such as Erasmus, things are much simpler. For example, if you require a sign-language interpreter while abroad, you have to apply for financial aid from your current university to cover this service. Make sure to contact the responsible official at your home university before commencing your studies abroad. Again, make a point to seek help from your advisors!

Lane for wheelchair users © Schubert/DAAD
Lane for wheelchair users . © Schubert/DAAD

Obtaining a visa often costs money as well. If you have a disability or chronic illness, there might be special rules which apply to people in your circumstances.

Medical certificates

Medical certificates (“Atteste”) are issued by doctors, confirming medical conditions. Such certificates are very important for substantiating your disability and describing the effects it has on you. You are required to have these certificates translated into German by an officially certified translator. Your doctor should use the ICD and ICF classifications provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO). On the WHO website you find more information about the WHO classifications.

Checklist

If you wish to study abroad, the important thing is to start planning as early as possible. You should begin preparing for your visit at least two years in advance. The following is a checklist of the most important things to take care of before coming to Germany.

Visa and resident status

  • Special provisions if you wish to apply for a visa

Living expenses and financing

  • Services you require as a result of your disability (aids, assistants or nurses)
  • Expenses (Studentenwerk and university representative for disabled persons)
  • Type of health insurance cover
  • What services are covered by the health insurance provider in Germany? (Studentenwerk)
  • Is there a handicapped-accessible student hall of residence at the university? (Studentenwerk)
  • Is the university handicapped accessible? (Representative for disabled persons)

Medical certificates

  • Is your disability recognised in Germany? (Representative for disabled persons)
  • Certificates in your native language
  • German translation of certificates by an officially certified translator