The international community has urged governments through different world conferences to promote legislative and political frameworks under the principles of inclusive education. We have found examples of these initiatives since the 1990s [1
]. For example, the 4th goal of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations [3
] establishes the need for a framework that guarantees inclusive and equitable quality education and promotes lifelong learning opportunities for all. This Sustainable Development Goal introduces measures to implement global commitments at both national and regional levels in this field. Despite all these recommendations and the actions developed, we cannot affirm, at present, that higher education is an inclusive space in which students with disabilities can develop under identical conditions.
Under the concept of disability, we include any physical, motor, intellectual, mental, or sensory impairment (auditory or visual) of permanent or temporary nature, limiting people’s ability to carry out activities of daily living. In addition, these limitations can be increased by economic and social conditions.
A disability paradigm is a restrictive approach because it is focused on the internal difficulties that people have. An inclusive model has replaced this approach. The inclusive paradigm shifts the attention to the environmental conditions and how they interact with the people.
In practice, this change allows us to overcome the restrictions of intervention models focused on personal limitations and rehabilitation. Following the inclusive paradigm, the intervention approach deals with personal limitations. Still, it considers their combination of social and environmental circumstances, physical, cognitive, social, and sensory barriers that determine daily activities. In this sense, the students’ disabilities or limitations are the conditions and resources that an environment offers them. Thus, students with a hearing disability may not have learning difficulties if they have appropriate devices to facilitate access to information.
We find the “special educational needs” (SEN) concept associated with the inclusive model in the educational field. This concept refers to students who have significantly different school performances from their classmates. Therefore, they need different or more educational resources to achieve their learning goals.
Inclusive education defends the right of people to learn in a standardized system that considers their needs, disabilities, and circumstances [4
]. It is a continuous improvement process that identifies and eliminates barriers or factors that limit the possibilities of participation and educational success of all students [5
Other concepts in close relation with the inclusive education paradigm are “universal accessibility” (UA) and the “universal design of learning” (UDL). UA refers to the flexible and open way of designing and constructing devices and buildings to be used by the majority of people, taking into account their particular circumstances [7
]. The UDL aims to develop a flexible curriculum to adapt to the different educational needs of each learner. Therefore, educational institutions must provide teaching by seeking multiple means of representing and expressing knowledge and facilitating, as much as possible, the participation of “all” students in curricular and extracurricular activities, including those students with disabilities [8
The inclusive concepts and principles have been gradually incorporated into compulsory education in the last decades. However, their incorporation into higher education is more recent and has not been applied in all its complexity. European universities have restructured their curriculum under the Bologna Process. The curricula have been restructured, according to the competencies of professional profiles; the variety of learning methods and assessment systems is expanded [10
]. In addition, many European universities have developed designs with curricular flexibility to support people with disabilities.
Despite the opportunity and the regulations adopted, the latest report on European higher education [8
] indicates that few universities have implemented adequate measures to ensure physical and curricular accessibility for students with disabilities.
Dalton et al. [7
] carried out a study in some universities in South Africa and the United States similar to the European study and recognized that inclusion and equity of access is, theoretically, a priority for universities. However, in practice, there is a need to continue supporting these institutions to achieve greater accessibility.
In Spain, the Olivenza Report [11
] shows that 34.4% of the Spanish population has a higher education; this percentage is only 16.8% for people with disabilities. University students with disabilities currently make up only 1.7% of the total number of students. Several studies [12
] confirm university students with disabilities’ difficulties in overcoming architectural barriers and access to information. Other studies [14
] point out that the problems encountered have an impact on the self-concept and the perception of well-being and mental health of students with disabilities.
The Universia Foundation [16
] has carried out several studies using data provided by university administrations. The results show the efforts and progress made by institutions to promote inclusion. In this sense, they highlight the creation of care services for students with disabilities and other specific needs, the adaptation of physical and architectural environments for accessing facilities, the provision of accessible transport, and specific human and material resources, according to their economic availability.
The Universia Foundation
] reports indicate that there would be an average of 1.5% in the Spanish university student population with disabilities. Most college students with disabilities have a degree of disability between 33% and 64%. However, in 25% of cases, the universities do not report more than “exceeding 33%” (Spanish law considers disability to exist when a person reaches a degree equal to or greater than 33%). Regarding the disabilities, physical–organic disabilities are the most frequent, with an average of 51.7%; mental or psychological disorders represent 16.1%; visual disabilities 8.3%; hearing disabilities 7.2%. The proportion of university students with intellectual disabilities is low (1.2%). The remaining percentage (15.5%) is included under “other disabilities or combined disabilities.” By field of knowledge, many students with disabilities elect studies in Social and Legal Sciences (51%), while in science studies, they have the lowest presence (5.3%).
Other studies [17
] have been collected from the students with disabilities to triangulate the information. Although the results are not conclusive and differ according to the type of disability and the methodology used in the study, the emphasis is on the demand for greater resources, greater accessibility to information, and precise curricular adjustments according to their needs.
Finally, professors [4
] have a fundamental role in promoting inclusion and equity in learning. Professors’ attitudes towards disability and their influence on student performance are studied factors [20
]. These studies suggest that attitudes towards integration are strongly influenced by the nature of the disabilities and educational problems being presented and, to a lesser extent, by the professional background of the respondents. Professors are optimistic about integrating only those students whose disabling characteristics are not likely to require extra instructional or management skills on the part of the teacher [21
Professors’ attitudes towards integration reflect a lack of confidence in their instructional skills due to initial training received by future professors [22
]. In line with this, a descriptive study [24
] collects information about some adaptations that university professors carry out and the perception of their ability to carry out these adaptations. In this sense, the present study aims to understand the professors’ willingness to meet the needs of their students. The review of the scientific literature on the subject provides significant factors that facilitate the inclusion of university students with disabilities. These results indicate that social relationships, the access conditions to facilities and services, the attitude of classmates and professors, and personalized curricular adjustments are crucial elements in eliminating barriers to learning. However, based on the variety of factors found and the wide diversity of students’ needs, there is a need for more research within the university context to generalize results and be effective in the orientations.
Therefore, starting from the above points, the present work looks toward answering the following questions:
Are there the necessary means and training available to carry out actions to enable the inclusion of SEN students in higher education institutions?
Which are the main obstacles that university faculty find in implementing curricular adaptations?
What kinds of adaptations are being made at the university to meet the needs of the SEN students?
What is the opinion of university faculty on the inclusion (academic, social, etc.) of SEN students in the university?
To do that, we designed research of which the general aim is to analyze the difficulties that professors find when promoting inclusive education to offer training according to their needs. This objective is specified in the following specific objectives based on four dimensions of the teaching–learning process:
Detect the problems that the professor perceives in the accessibility to facilities and teaching resources.
Know the professors’ willingness before the specific needs of their students.
Describe the curricular adjustments professors say they perform to meet those needs.
Know the perceptions that professors have about the interactions between students with specific needs and their classmates and professors.
Analyze whether differences in the four dimensions studied are based on sex, age group, teaching experience, and experience with students who require educational support.
Propose, according to the results obtained, recommendations to address the permanent training of university professors.
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Study Desing
It is a non-experimental, descriptive, and association design between variables using non-parametric techniques.
The population under study has been the University of León (ULE) Education Faculties teaching staff in the Autonomous Community of Castilla y León and the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) in the Community of Madrid.
To guarantee the representativeness of the sample, both the total population (number of full-time professors who teach at the Faculty of Education of ULE or UCM) and the distribution among the different departments where they train within the Faculty of Education degrees (degree in Primary Education, degree in Early Childhood Education, and degree in Social Education) in addition to the Master’s Degree in Teacher Training for Compulsory Secondary Education and Baccalaureate, Vocational Training and Teaching of Languages, and the Master in Educational Guidance. Thus, out of a total of 179 professors at ULE and 175 professors at UCM, the sample was made up of 210 professors (112 from ULE and 98 from UCM), of which 117 are women and 93 men, whose distribution by departments is the one shown in Table 1
The average number of students with disabilities in the UCM in the last ten years stands at 0.85%. In the ULE, the average percentage is 0.79% in the same time range. By field of knowledge, both in the UCM and in the ULE, the highest rate of registered students with disabilities is enrolled in the field of Social and Legal Sciences, 43% in the UCM, and 37% in the ULE. In the UCM, during the academic year 2018–2019, the students registered in the Office for the Inclusion of People with Diversity (OIPD) with a recognized disability certificate are distributed as 37% with a sensory disability, 28% due to physical-organic disability, 17% with mild developmental disorders (ADHD/ASD), 14% mental disability, and 4% mild intellectual disability. In addition, a total of 518 cases with other specific educational support needs are registered; among them, 25% of learning difficulties (dyslexia) stand out. The data provided by the ULE identify 31% physical–organic disability, 17% sensory, 6% psychic, and in the rest of the percentage, the cause is not specified.
In summary, the data provided by the universities under study show the same trend in terms of the kind and degree of disability of university students registered.
The guidelines facilitated by the disability services of the universities, based on the type of students’ educational needs, should guide the adaptations that the professors make in their courses. In this case, the most common conditions are related to mobility, communication, and relationship. It is essential to highlight that due to the approach adopted in this study, in coherence with the explicit theoretical framework, we understand that the educational needs of the students are individual and the result of the interaction of multiple factors, not only of the etiology of their disability.
2.3. Instrument and Procedure
The scale developed by Rodriguez-Martin and Alvarez-Arregui [25
] was adopted, consisting of a Likert-type scale with four response options depending on the degree of agreement (from lowest to highest) with a series of items related to the educational response towards students with disabilities. The scale demonstrated adequate psychometric properties of reliability and validity. The internal consistency reliability analysis yielded a Cronbach’s α of 0.929. The validity analysis was performed using the AMOS extension of the SPSS statistical package, which revealed the excellent fit of the model to the four dimensions that form it (χ2
= 897.029, p
< 0.000; CFI = 0.96; RMSEA = 0.63), according to Byrne’s criteria [26
Our study used it as the first part with socio-academic identification items grouped by gender, age group, teaching experience, and previous experience with students in need of support and knowledge. In a second part, thirty-four items were grouped into four categories or factors: the first factor (FI) refers to accessibility and the universities’ resources to meet the student needs, formed by eight items. The second factor (FII) refers to the lecturers’ willingness regarding the students with special educational needs (SEN), created by ten items. The third factor (FIII) indicates the actual implementation of the professors’ curricular adjustments to meet the students with special educational needs (SEN), formed by eight items. Finally, the fourth category seeks to know the relationships of the SEN with their classmates and professors and their participation in the different subjects, formed by eight items. An open response space was incorporated at the end of each factor for teachers to make pertinent observations to exemplify or clarify their answers.
It was decided to maintain the response format with four Likert-type alternatives to “force” professors to choose between sides in the agreement. Due to social desirability when in doubt, the tendency is to select the “neutral” response.
The initial version had 39 items, but after carrying out the Spearman–Brown correction formula, it was decided to use only those items that correlated above 0.35 and clearly belonged to one of the four factors found. This is why the final questionnaire is made up of 34 items.
The questionnaire was managed from January to July 2019. In addition, an email was sent to the identified professors to explain them the study goals, request their collaboration to fill in the online questionnaire with Google form, and ask for their free consent to participate.
After filling in the questionnaire for the sample, the data analysis was carried out using the software package (SPSS version 25) and the free software JASP, according to the analysis technique used, as they were considered suitable resources for this research. As can be seen in Table 2
, both alpha and omega indicate good internal reliability, since the values must range between 0.7 and 0.9 for both indexes to be considered adequate [27
Although Cronbach’s alpha is the most commonly used statistic in the social sciences, we have used the McDonald’s omega following the recommendations of the American Psychological Association (APA) for ordinal Likert-polytomous scales.
Nowadays, there is a growing concern about students with disabilities, since thousands of young people with disabilities lag in educational development indicators; hence, there is a need to implement studies that confirm the effectiveness of the actions developed with students with disabilities. In this sense, the general aim of the present research is to analyze the difficulties that professors find in promoting inclusive education to offer training according to students’ needs. This objective is achieved, as information is obtained about the specific objectives that are presented below.
First, related to problems perceives by professors about the accessibility to the facilities and teaching resources, the results show that there is agreement among the teaching staff regarding the need to improve accessibility and the resources offered by the university to facilitate inclusion: from mobility and access to the classrooms, the adaptation of classroom equipment, support of technologies for students with special educational needs to counting on auxiliary support staff. The contributions of the teaching staff in the first factor in the open-ended responses report specific issues of infrastructure and personal resources that would need to be improved. For example, they stated that: “the spaces do not favor mobility and make access difficult for people who need to use wheelchairs, the access corridors to classrooms and professors’ offices are narrow”; “most of the classrooms have fixed tables and chairs anchored to the floor, which are a barrier for students with mobility problems”; “the platforms and classroom furniture hinder the passage of students with motor and visual difficulties”; “there is no signage to identify spaces in Braille or relief code”; “more support staff or a specific service would be needed both to adapt materials (videos, presentations or class notes) and to support the use and maintenance of specific materials for people with visual and hearing impairment”; “there are FM microphones for selective sound amplification, but their maintenance is not always adequate.”
This shows that facing disability from an inclusive paradigm at the universities requires a workforce trained and equipped with skills to work in a cross-disciplinary manner to operationalize the actuation guidelines designed to promote the delivery of educative services for students with disabilities [29
Second, concerning professors’ willingness to respond to the specific needs of their students, it is necessary to highlight that the professors who have not taught students with disabilities have the worst perception of the resources and equipment of the classroom to provide inclusive education. In contrast, those who have worked for students with disabilities are the ones who most positively value the equipment in the classrooms and who have made the most significant number of adaptations to their teaching and learning processes. This study confirms that professors are an essential factor for the performance improvement of university students with disabilities [30
]. The initial and in-service teacher training programs should include issues related to the diversification of teaching and assessment methods and incorporating inclusive pedagogy. With this, it pushes the creation of environments rich in learning opportunities for all students, recognition of individual differences, and developing competencies for collaborative work.
Active approaches to learning (cooperative learning, situated learning, service learning, or project-based learning) should be incorporated into teacher training, fostering increasingly inclusive environments [32
]. The adoption by professors of an appropriate methodology is a better guarantee that the inclusive process will become a reality.
Additionally, as mentioned in previous research [33
], education resources based on information and communication technologies (ICT) are considered valuable instruments by the professors. In this sense, the data collected in this regard in the open-ended responses report that “professors can deliver online materials (course notes, exercises, etc.) before the sessions if they have the support of specialized resources and personnel.” This allows students with or without disabilities to prepare for the course sessions. Furthermore, they remark “that universities should be equipped with scanners given the extensive use of scanning and OCR by students with all types of disabilities”; “The use of scanners combined with laptops or tablets for the students increases the accessibility to the learning materials.” Besides, the use of ICT facilitates another UDL: “allowing the online submission of the assignments, some students have great difficulties getting to the professor’s office due to their medical situation or the lack of accessibility of the campus”; “QR with accessible texts to expand information on schedules and conditions of use of services and facilities.”
Third, related to curricular adaptations that professors declare that they make to meet students’ needs, the present study shows that the measure most used for students with disabilities allows for more time for work deadlines or exams, followed by modifying teaching resources [13
]. Thus, the changes professors make to adapt the training process to students with disabilities do not imply any meaningful or substantive modification in the teaching–learning process [34
]. In this sense, among the professors surveyed in the area of Law, there is evidence of the perception that it is necessary to adapt the objectives and contents, but not the methodology. This contrasts with the view of professors in other areas such as Psychology and Pedagogy, which may be due to the specific training in the inclusion of this group. In this regard, it is essential to emphasize that inclusion implies the restructuring of the teaching practices themselves [35
]. Higher education institutions and quality assurance agencies should recognize and encourage the development of inclusive practices to become more widespread. In this regard, teacher promotion programs and degree accreditation could include indicators that acknowledge the development of measures and resources to favor all students’ physical and curricular accessibility to learning.
Future research should triangulate these results with those provided by students with disabilities to understand their perspective. The future assessment and planning processes must include the students’ experiences with disabilities in future assessment and planning processes. It is only then that educative and social change can enhance their participation [20
Fourth, regarding the lecturers’ perceptions about the interactions between SEN students and their classmates and professors, previous studies [34
] confirm that this is one of the factors that most influences the development of students with disabilities. The present study shows a positive perception by university professors about the adequate participation and relationship of students with disabilities in the classroom, with their classmates, and with the teaching staff. However, previous studies coincide in good relationships with classmates and professors, but students state that professors do not have enough training to respond to their needs [13
]. Social integration and good relationships with peers allow students to solve many academic difficulties derived from their disability. For example, they solve doubts about subject contents and obtain materials and notes through their peers, highlighting peer learning and mentoring as essential resources. Thus, in the case of students with disabilities, they can improve the learning and integration process in university education. As shown in the results, professors in Pedagogy and Psychology consider that the relationships between students with disabilities and professors are good, to a greater extent than the assessment made by other colleagues. This may be due to the positive evaluation developed by these professors in terms of the number of interactions, tutorials, and support situations in which they have responded to students with disabilities. Pedagogy and Psychology professors’ quantitative and qualitative responses report that their interactions with students with disabilities are more favorable than professors in other areas. This tendency could be interpreted in the sense that greater knowledge and closeness to the individual needs of these students leads to more satisfaction in the faculty and better performance of the students [36
In fifth place, we studied the differences between the four dimensions considered based on sex, age group, teaching experience, and experience with students who require educational support. The results show that male professors have a better perception of accessibility and university resources for students with disabilities than female professors. Nonetheless, female professors show a better willingness to meet the students with disability needs. These results are in line with the findings, which indicate that women are more prone to identify curricular or architectural obstacles that students with disabilities must overcome [37
] and have greater proactivity towards providing accommodations and adopting UDL principles [34
]. These results can be explained in terms of variables such as empathy, since women have always obtained higher scores in this sense than men. Additionally, it could be because women have been traditionally socialized in nurturing and caring roles, which may explain differences in male and female attitudes. However, any gender differences should be interpreted with caution due to the characteristics of the sample used [38
Age does not seem to be a differentiating variable in terms of perception of the inclusion situation (accessibility and resources, teachers’ disposition, curricular adjustments, and SEN students’ relationships). Nevertheless, years of teaching experience does seem to be differentiating. The professors with more experience perceive greater accessibility and university resources for students with disabilities and show a greater need for training in the UDL. This circumstance has also been appreciated in previous studies [7
]. It denotes that, despite the high levels of stress and burnout [39
] among university professors, educational inclusion is not affected by years of professional experience. The commitment to inclusion is more present in the professors who are developing their professional careers (experience between 6 and 15 years). They are the ones who are making the most significant number of curricular adaptations. This commitment may be due to their consolidation in the profession and the fact that they have had previous training in educational inclusion and need to achieve tangible and not theoretical equity both at the social and educational level.
According to the results obtained, we have to make several recommendations to guide future interventions and address university professors’ permanent training [40
]. The first conclusion is that there is a general lack of knowledge about the existence and functioning of the care and support services for people with disabilities in universities. It proposes awareness campaigns focused primarily on identified target groups to raise awareness of specific needs and make particular needs visible. These services have begun to develop in recent years, coinciding with the increase in the number of people with special needs at the university. However, their resources, actions, and functions are not always well defined or known by the faculty [41
]. The faculty should make an effort to know and take part in the activities of these services. In addition, the staff of these services must have enough training and resources to support or suggest the curriculum adaptations that SEN students require.
These services can become integration points, offering information about resources, training options, and links between education and employment to move forward in a university inclusive educational response to diversity [20
]. In this sense, it is proposed to establish coordination mechanisms between disability support services and course or degree coordinators. Our results show how most professors (49%) have not carried out any training activities concerning SEN students’ support or the UDL in the last five years. A significant percentage of faculty are unaware of the principles and ways to UDL’s implementation. The professors require support to recognize the difficulties of access and participation of students with disabilities, especially male professors, who have less capacity than their female colleagues to identify these needs and barriers. Based on the results, we propose the development of program training courses on specific knowledge of the different types of disabilities; on curriculum training in design for all for teachers of varying university degrees to introduce the concepts of universal accessibility (UA) and universal design for learning (UDL); knowledge of UDL principles and their practical implications: how to provide multiple means of participation, representation, action, and expression of learning. Similarly, emphasis should be placed on training in active methodologies with multilevel activities, authentic assessment tools, and resources (e.g., how to assess by competencies and not by content or learning rubrics); information and concrete practices on how to make essential subject documentation (word texts, presentations, and videos) accessible to all students. If the training programs link with the tenure track or promotion of the professors, they would have more success.
In this regard, the teaching training program and its recognition for professors should be complemented at a macro level (institution or system). In this way, we propose the incorporation of quality indicators related to the degree of attention to disability and accessibility that the degrees of the universities or the universities themselves have.
It should change the orientation that most of these services have. Most of them are working under a care-based approach instead of adopting the inclusive paradigm, which is more feasible in the education field. They should offer services focused on rights and the promotion of the abilities of the SEN students [20
]. These changes would allow the services to contribute to the professional development of the university faculty, offering formal and structured training programs as well as recognizing their actions for inclusion.
We emphasize that the statistical significance and the strength of the association between variables do not correspond to the importance of the practical applications, especially in the educational sciences. Nevertheless, the small and medium effects found in the items of the four factors may accumulate, producing a critical beneficial impact on the learning conditions of university SEN students.
Joining this change to the previous recognition program, we conclude that the integration of the training activities and the recognition of the curricular adaptions developed as part of the promotion scheme would entail a greater interest and a greater willingness to care for SEN students.
The study presents some limitations. Although the results of this study are positive, the data are partial and should be completed. Furthermore, this was a cross-sectional study in which data collection was carried out in a single temporal moment. In addition, self-report data from professors joined to other measures of inclusive education at university for students with disabilities should be included in future researches. It would also be helpful to conduct more studies on how to measure disability-inclusive development in higher education.