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University of Copenhagen
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Student life

Law student is deaf and blind: »No one is going to tell me what I can and cannot do«

Level playing field — Sofie Bloch Nielsen has a functional impairment and is frustrated by complicated assistance regulations. She thinks that the University of Copenhagen should level up and be better at catering to challenged students.

When Sofie Bloch Nielsen started her law programme she was surprised by the amount of energy she needed for her studies, and how badly it affected her.

»In the beginning, I sometimes sat and cried on the train on the way home to Ringsted, because it was really overwhelming,« she says.

Sofie Bloch Nielsen has a physical disability that makes it difficult for her to keep up with classes, and she is willing to speak openly about it.

»It angers me when it is us with disabilities that have to adapt to society, and not the other way around. We encounter a lot of bureaucracy that we have to find our way through ourselves. And this makes me tired and frustrated. It’s as if your functional impairment would disappear when you get into a higher education programme, but that is not how it works,« says Sofie Nielsen.

Deaf at the age of two

Sofie Bloch Nielsen has Usher syndrome, which is an acquired deafness and blindness. She went completely deaf at the age of two, but got a cochlear implant which allows her to hear enough to keep up with the teaching at the Faculty of Law on South Campus.

Usher syndrome not only affects her hearing, but also her vision, which has now been reduced to a 10-15 degrees field of view. She can therefore only look straight ahead – while others usually have a 160 degrees field of view.

Sofie Bloch Nielsen’s eyes are also very sensitive to light, which makes it difficult for her to detect strong contrasts. She is therefore in need of aids like one that dims the light from her iPad to make it easier for her to see the content on the screen.

Her cochlear implant, on the other hand, works so well that she has chosen not to use a hearing aid. But the Usher syndrome requires more energy from her to keep up with class and group work on the programme.

Assessed to be unsuitable

It was no foregone conclusion that Sofie Bloch Nielsen would be studying law at university, as she faced resistance to taking this path even before she started secondary school.

»A school teacher wrote a text message to my mother, which I read by chance. It said: ‘Sofie will never get into secondary school, because she is not suitable. And she will not get into university either, because she has a disability’,« says Sofie Bloch Nielsen.

Fortunately she is stubborn and independent:

»No one should be able to dictate what I can and cannot do,« she says, and adds that she knows several people with disabilities who have had similar experiences.

Months of waiting time for assistive devices

Sofie Bloch Nielsen started to seek help on the same day she started the programme and spoke to an employee, who referred her to IBOS, the Institute for the Blind and Partially Sighted, where she had to try on sorts of devices to reduce her fatigue.

It went well, but she didn’t get her devices until December.

»I went to pick them up before Christmas. And now the first semester is over, so this is not good enough,« says Sofie Bloch Nielsen.

UCPH turned study group into a problem

Sofie Bloch Nielsen is generally positive about the way she has been received by the educational support staff at the UCPH. But she is puzzled by a few things in connection with the university’s handling of her needs.


In regards to Sofie Bloch Nielsen’s criticism of the size of the study groups, the University Education Services at the Faculty of Law responds:

»The students’ group work is an important qualification for the bachelor’s diploma and part of the bachelor’s curriculum in law.

It is therefore important that all students get an equal opportunity to participate in group work, and this means that they must be placed in study groups of equal size.

The study groups generally consist of six to seven students. When the faculty receives a request to participate in a smaller study group, we consider whether this is possible, but we cannot guarantee it, as it depends on the behaviour of the fellow students.

We do, on the other hand, offer support and guidance from the programme’s group supervisors and student counsellors to get the groups to work in the best possible way, and it is our experience that this support often has a positive effect.«

»There are seven of us in my study group, and the large number is a challenge for me with my Usher syndrome, because I get tired quickly. I therefore sent an application for an exemption to UCPH so that I could join a smaller study group next semester,« says Sofie Bloch Nielsen.

She reckoned this was a modest proposal that would be accepted. But this was not to be.

»My application was rejected. They wrote that they could not take this into account when planning the groups, and I find this incomprehensible. I don’t think UCPH has been able to help me make my situation more equitable to that of the other students. UCPH just avoids taking its own responsibility,« says Sofie Bloch Nielsen.

She emphasizes that all the group members are really nice people. She just can’t handle the fact that there are so many of them.

»If I want to have the same conditions as others, it means that I have to be in a smaller group than others. UCPH does not let me have the same conditions when they do not give me a smaller group. UCPH ignores my needs, and this has me feeling I am treated unfairly. When it comes to the question of the size of the group, it is me that has to adapt and not the other way around. This is even though a university should be able to keep up with the times and solve this challenge,« says Sofie Bloch Nielsen.

Wants less complicated rules

At the beginning of her second semester, she has all her devices ready, but there are still a few concerns for Sofie Bloch Nielsen. They all have to do with her future as a student, and the increased risk of delays to her study programme.

»I struggle with chronic fatigue. I know others with disabilities who feel the same way, and this affects our student life. That’s why we need a bit more space in our schedules,« she says.

But just like her request for a smaller study group, she cannot be certain that she will get dispensation to go beyond the prescribed completion time if she needs it. And this worries her.

»When I started at UCPH, the requirement that we have to complete 30 ECTS credits each semester seemed overwhelming to me. And the rules for when you comply with the study activity requirement, or when you have fallen behind, seem complicated. All these requirements scare me,« says Sofie Bloch Nielsen.

Now in January, and on her way towards a second semester, she is content to set her own goals. And she plans to extend her studies when she reaches the third semester, as by this point she expects she will need to take it easy.

But the requirements are a constant source of concern. She has to adhere to two different sets of rules, and they have nothing to do with each other: The university has rules for how long she can extend her studies. The rules for receiving the Danish SU student grant are made by the Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science.

»I think the rules should be less complicated, and that the systems were more compatible,« says Sofie Bloch Nielsen.

On the right shelf

In December, towards the end of the first semester, Sofie Bloch Nielsen was still angered and frustrated by the treatment of her and others with disabilities.

»It’s a sense of injustice that makes me angry,« she says, but quickly adds that some things have also started to work better on the programme.

»I’m getting into the rhythm of studying at the Faculty of Law. I still have my down days once in a while, because I’m exhausted. But it’s not as bad as at first. I have a better overview of my studies, and I only give up a lecture or seminar once in a while so that I can do the studying at home in Ringsted where I live with my parents,« says Sofie Bloch Nielsen.

She feels that she has ended up on the right degree programme, and this helps give her the strength for her struggle with both Usher syndrome and the bureaucracy of the university.

»I really like the study programme, because law is exciting. Law is actually a complete language that you have to learn, and that is fascinating,« says Sofie Bloch Nielsen.