NOVA University Lisbon – Lisbon, Portugal

NOVA University Lisbon established the Special Needs Students Support Office within its Student Support Office in 2018. The office was initiated by non-academic stakeholders; psychologists and trained counsellors at the office. The office was established to improve university inclusion of students with disabilities (whether temporary or permanent) and to enhance their well-being while studying. The office is primarily oriented towards helping students with disabilities but in doing so, identifies and supports the following equity groups, as well: Low-income students First generation students Students/staff with a refugee or migrant backgrounds LGBTQ students/staff Racial/ethnic minorities. In identifying equity groups, the office relied on both national and university policy, academic research, and direct student feedback. Also, the university developed specific targets set for improving access for equity groups.

In the last two years, the office implemented the following programs: 

  • Support and counselling for students and university staff
  • Lectures, workshops, and seminars for students, faculty and non-teaching staff
  • Training courses for peer educators
  • Improving physical accessibility
  • Improving digital accessibility 

The activities with the greatest observed impact are peer mentoring programs and psychological support. Students can develop the needed skills through peer activities while also improving personal skills through provided support. 

In the context of office activities, the last creative tool implemented was an inclusive and open talk with a larger group of students who were encouraged to share their experiences. 

In addition to these activities, the university implements other measures, in collaboration with the office: binding policy (legislation), strategies and action plans developing recommendations and guidelines, and implementing preventive programmes. 

The office was established because there was a lack of institutional support for the group of special needs students which was steadily growing. The office was established in response to identified student discrimination and academic disparities, particularly noting that students experiencing difficulties were not attaining the same level of academic success as those without such challenges. The Office staff highlights the positive impact of peer programs and counselling services as best indicators of the success of their services.
The work of the Office is governed by internal university policy which is also informed by international policy and research on disability. Most notably, the OECD’s categorisation of students with disabilities is directly applied to the university policy and is governing the Support Office.
The office’s organisational structure divides roles according to field of expertise and ensures a stable team that follows the progress of individual student cases. Ensuring and promoting diversity, inclusion, and equality is also embedded in the university’s strategies, policies, and work plans. Decisions regarding the programme and organizational structure are made collaboratively between the office and the university bodies. The office is also a member of local and national networks which are used to share best practices and to gain new knowledge on improving services.
The main challenge the office had to overcome was providing satisfactory services and student progress monitoring while lacking adequate human resources. This issue remains an obstacle to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the office. Currently, the staff grades the stability of their funding as satisfactory but with room for improvement. The university is the sole funder of the office.
The office developed a formal evaluation process of their services and programmes by relying on qualitative indicators of measuring success. At the end of the academic year, interviews are conducted with students using the services. Students’ responses are analysed and used to improve the services in the following academic year.

Special Needs Students Office

Lisbon, Portugal