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Name: Agnes Sarolta Fazekas, PhD
Country of Residence: Hungary
Short bio: Agnes Sarolta Fazekas (she/her) is an Assistant Professor at the Eötvös Loránd University Bárczi Gusztáv Faculty of Special Needs Education in Budapest, Hungary. Since 2019, Agnes has been the leader of the Work Package 6, Inclusiveness, of the CHARM-EU Alliance and an elected member of the EAIE General Council 2020-2022. Previously, she was chair of the EAIE Expert Community Access and Diversity 2018-2020. Between 2015 and 2017, she worked as an external adviser for the Erasmus+ Higher Education Working Group on mobility for people with disabilities. Since 2014, she has been working as a programming team member and trainer with the Council of Europe Youth Department on several study sessions. Agnes holds a PhD degree in the field of access & inclusion of people with disabilities in Higher Education, as well as a Master’s in Social Policy.
In your opinion, are cities and citizens becoming more inclusive at a European level?
Thank you so much for this question! Whenever I speak at conferences or in class, I highlight that inclusion is a complex concept; we shouldn’t think about diversity and inclusion in terms of a specific group of people, rather approach it in an holistic way. In the past, it may have been considered a burden or a challenge, but today we should consider diversity a default. We should respect, recognize, and celebrate the diversity that people bring to society; we should think about how it can enrich us in every sector and in every space – including Higher Education. When it comes to inclusion, that is something we should work towards together; it requires systematic change. For instance, in Higher Education, it's not only the target audience trying to fit within a mainstream environment, but that environment too working on the settings, challenging existing barriers, and identifying the enablers in that settings, whether it's teaching, the learning environment, etc. Individuals are becoming more aware and conscious about the environment around them, and global challenges, exclusion, and inclusion matter to many. In summary, we should open our doors to everyone and engage in a very colorful and joint partnership that will include all voices and all expertises.
Today, there are many initiatives that foster green, sustainable, and inclusive cities around Europe. Examples include: the Access City Award, the European Green Capital and Green Leaf Award, as well as the Rainbow Map published yearly by ILGA-Europe.
Do you think the pandemic has contributed to accessibility efforts or slowed them down?
Now that Pandora’s box has been opened, the global pandemic enormously amplified and clarified many systemic issues, such as structural barriers to access to information or access and participation in different online interactions (e.g.: inaccessible digital tools and poorly designed platform interfaces), that hinder full and effective participation. Additionally, it gave rise to initiatives that bring accessibility to the centre of attention. Many businesses increased their reach to audiences who face challenges in accessing and participating in online environments. If they want to remain relevant, they will have to embrace the new demands of a post-Covid world, proactively demonstrate their commitment to meet the needs of individuals with access requirements, and increase awareness of the urgency for finding ways to consciously work and live together.
2022 is the European Year of Youth. Is the new generation working towards achieving an inclusive and diverse Europe? In what ways? Are there any initiatives you’d like to highlight?
Indeed, the European Commission and Parliament designated 2022 as the European Year of Youth, creating a better future with young people. This provides an opportunity for everyone to feel optimistic, fight against discrimination, and encourage reflection and dialogue on critical questions, ultimately, calling upon policy makers to work towards progressive, positive social change together with young people. I am delighted to witness many local, regional, national, and European initiatives that engage different stakeholders to work towards an inclusive, diverse Europe and meaningfully include and co-create with young people. A point of improvement in many initiatives, though, would be to encompass all voices. Promoting and protecting equal rights and equity of access should be safeguarded in policies and practices, yet, still, many groups remain underrepresented. “Nothing about us without us” means that no policy or practice should be made without the participation of all groups, including individuals – especially young ones – from different backgrounds, life experiences, and access needs. Collaborating and co-creating with young people, especially those who face structural barriers and rigid power relations and dynamics, is essential; otherwise, their voice is easily dismissed. The message in the ‘No one left behind: increasing access for all students’ blog post I wrote in 2019 still stands for 2022 and the European Year of Youth – not only in education but beyond.
You have worked on utterly interesting projects. Do you have any favorites?
Indeed, there have been many extraordinary projects, all of which have contributed to my personal and professional growth. I loved each and every one of those projects for different reasons. Working towards a more just education system, protecting and promoting human rights, and creating step-by-step intersectionally inclusive spaces for individuals from all walks of life in various education spaces – including human rights education – is my mission, my passion, my personal and professional path in life. I was born with an arm malformation; I am delighted to share and enrich my personal life experiences within educational, governance, and other spaces where policies and practices have been designed. I am genuinely grateful that I could contribute to these beautiful projects. I want to keep gaining different perspectives, discuss actionable strategies for designing and implementing policies and practices in education, and further improve protecting human rights by applying an intersectionally inclusive prism that helps scan our design, delivery, and monitoring processes.
You are an assistant professor at ELTE Eötvös Loránd University. How would you describe your teaching style?
The increase in number and gradual change in the composition of the Higher Education student population has posed new demands. In a rapidly changing environment, it becomes inevitable to review and design the teaching and learning environment to respect and value the diversity of students. In my teaching style and methodology, I am implementing elements, principles, and guidelines from my research field – Universal Design educational models – that value the diverse composition of students, view diversity as an asset, and aim to create flexible teaching and learning environments that best suit the needs of a diverse student population. Furthermore, it allows a diverse mix of students (including students with disabilities) to participate effectively and make the most of their opportunities (Fazekas, 2018; Fazekas, 2019*). Last but not least, I enrich my teaching methods by creating synergies between formal and non-formal education, as well as drawing from my professional experiences in inclusion and diversity.
Tell us about CHARM-EU. What is your role, and what is your vision and mission about this project?
The European Universities Initiative is designed to significantly strengthen the mobility of students and staff and foster the quality, inclusiveness, and competitiveness of European Higher Education. CHARM-EU (CHallenge-driven, Accessible, Research-based, Mobile European University) is an alliance of 17 European universities selected in the first call; 24 more have been chosen since. CHARM-EU’s ambitious mission and vision is to be a pioneer and model in European Higher Education and beyond, offering a plural, inclusive, flexible, and student-centered learning experience. The alliance represents an innovative model of 21st-century Higher Education, where accessibility and inclusion are interwoven into its DNA. Since 2019, I have been a leader of the Work Package 6, Inclusiveness. I work together with the WP6 team to ensure that inclusion and diversity sit at the heart of CHARM-EU, particularly the Master’s in Global Challenges for Sustainability, by employing inclusion by design – i.e. strategically injecting inclusiveness into culture, design, delivery – and monitoring all areas of the alliance.
CHARM-EU recently had its Annual Conference. Can you tell me about these events’ connections to inclusion? What were the main takeaways?
Connecting aspects and questions about inclusiveness were the main topics of discussion in the thematic sessions at the CHARM-EU Conference 2022. I would also like to discuss the CHARM-EU Days 2020, which focused on exchanging good practices about safeguarding equality and inclusion in policies and practices. An inclusive Green Deal for Europe means that policies and implementation must be inclusive and open. Many people are excluded from these processes because of their gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, disability, poverty level, etc. This session offered principles for an inclusive design that considers the greatest extent of people. To ensure "no one is left behind", it is necessary to consider who is included and excluded in the discussions and negotiations on the European Green Deal and the Sustainable Development Goals. Inclusion is a step-by-step journey; empowering individuals with different experiences, backgrounds, and access needs, as well as working directly with them and multiple stakeholders are paramount for creating an inclusive CHARM-EU and a more inclusive European Higher Education Area.
In our first meeting, you mentioned how you were a fan of universal design. I find integrating design and agile principles in traditional industries up-and-coming, albeit ambitious. What do you think?
Ambitious, but the way forward! I think that in various industries, such as education, product design, and the list go on and on, we can keep questioning what is not accessible or not inclusive, and continue the reflection. I always say we should be asking "Okay, what is the barrier of the teaching and learning environment? What is the barrier to communication? What is the barrier of the online tools we are using?" We should always question and reflect on unconscious and conscious biases because of the many hidden factors in Higher Education and other social spaces. We need to be open, we need to reflect all the time, and we need to ask the question of what is not inclusive and who is invited to the table for negotiations for discussions.
What projects would you like to see more of in the EU?
I would really like to see project initiatives involving people with various backgrounds, experiences, and access needs, listen to them, and involve them in the brainstorming, procedures, design, and delivery. I know having everyone’s voice be encompassed is a long process. Much longer and much more complex conversations and negotiations are needed. Democratic processes are a bit slow, but give the chance to create something beneficial to the greatest extent of people.
What are your plans for the future?
My future plans are to keep working towards a more just education, protecting and promoting human rights, and step-by-step create intersectionally inclusive spaces for individuals from all walks of life in education, including human rights education. I hope that, when societies face global social challenges, a diverse group of individuals will get together to brainstorm and discuss; and the outcome will be in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. That way, no one will be left behind. It's a big challenge, but we can start small and continue raising awareness and call for joint efforts; in the end, I think it will be beneficial.
*1. Fazekas Á. S. (2018). Felsőoktatáshoz történő hozzáférés és a felsőoktatásban való részvétel vizsgálata a fogyatékossággal élő személyek vonatkozásában. Budapest: ELTE Társadalomtudományi Kar, Szociológia Doktori Iskola, Szociálpolitikai Program. https://edit.elte.hu/xmlui/handle/10831/44521 (Letöltés időpontja: 2020. február 03.)
2. Fazekas Á. S. (2018). Disability as a diversity issue in internationalization. Conference Conversation Starter. Amsterdam: EAIE European Association for International Education.
3. Fazekas Á. S. (2019). Befogadó tervezés a felsőoktatás oktatási, tanulási környezetében. Fogyatékosság és Társadalom, 2019/1(3), 57–75.. doi: 10.31287/FT.hu.2019.1.3 http://fogyatekossagtudomany.elte.hu/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/03_FT_2019_1_Tanulmanyok_Fazekas.pdf (Letöltés időpontja: 2020 május 23.)
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