In the Republic of Croatia, the rights of individuals with disabilities along with their right to higher education are regulated with a whole list of rules. Some of those are general rules that guarantee equality to all members of the population and, accordingly, to persons with disabilities (for example, the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia, 1990), some are specific and are the bases for special rights of persons with disabilities (for example, the Law for Movement of Blind Persons with Assistance of Guide Dogs, 1998), and rare ones specifically mention students with disabilities as a group (for example, the Rulebook for Awarding of State Scholarships to Regular Undergraduate Students and Reimbursement of Partial Tuition Costs for Postgraduate Students, 2002). Special rights are mainly regulated through rulebooks, which resource ministers and institutions (i.e., universities and faculties) apply based on existing laws.

There are no reliable data in our country about numbers of students with disabilities. According to rough estimates (primarily derived from estimates of NGOs of students with disabilities), only about 200 students with disabilities are enrolled at the University of Zagreb, the largest Croatian university with enrolment of over 71,000 students. Enrolment numbers at other Croatian universities are even lower. The reason for this small number of students with disabilities is a slew of objective, subjective, and organizational obstacles to quality higher education of students with disabilities.

Although in academic settings individualized approach and fulfilment of particular needs can be the only correct way of support for students with disabilities nonetheless there are measures and actions that can solve some key questions common to all students with disabilities as well as individual categories of students most often formed around type of disability. Depending on the nature of a disability or impairment, students have differently prioritized needs. For example, for students with motor challenges space obstacles is most relevant; students with impaired sight will have the greatest need for adapted access to literature; students with impaired hearing have the unresolved question of financing sign language interpreters; students with chronic illnesses and/or psychological diagnoses may need flexibility of assignment deadlines and occasionally of rhythm of daily activities; students with specific learning disabilities need adapted instructional materials and means of knowledge examination. All students with disabilities require flexibility and competency of educators and administrators accompanied with sensitivity to students’ needs and a planned systemic action for the fulfilment of those needs. Under no circumstances should these adjustments include any form of positive discrimination like lowering of academic students due to student’s disabilities. Students with disabilities can give and ought to receive only high standards and quality.

All universities in the Republic of Croatia included in their statutes constitutional principles about disallowing discrimination (based on race, gender, language, faith, political or other beliefs, national or social origin, assets, birth, social position, disability, sexual orientation, age and other factors, Article 14). Also included is the stipulation of the Law on Scientific Activities and Higher Education (2003) which states that all students have a right to quality studies and educational process as envisioned in the program of studies. The constitution of the Republic of Croatia ensures the right of all citizens to all levels of education (Article 65). Furthermore, the recently adopted Law on Repression of Discrimination (2008) considers the failure to reasonably accommodate a form of discrimination against persons with disabilities and pertains also to the fields of education, science, and sport (Article 4,2). The Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2005), which was also ratified by the Republic of Croatia, in the section pertaining to education (Article 24), commits signing countries to "ensure rights to education for persons with disabilities, without discrimination and based on equal opportunities, through assuring: reasonable accommodations for individual needs; necessary assistance for persons with disabilities so that their effective education within a system of general education could be facilitated; provision of effective individualized measures of support in environments that most contribute to academic and social development, in accordance with the goal of complete inclusion." National Strategy for Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities from 2007 until 2015, which is harmonized with relevant international documents, emphasizes (in the section on upbringing and education, Chapter 2.3) quality education at all levels as one of its priorities along with the necessity of ensuring conditions for increasing accessibility to quality education for students with disabilities.

However, due to numerous obstacles that appear during their studies connected to their disabilities and still uneven practices and inexistence of clear instructions and guidelines for practice, students with disabilities are frequently unable to realize their right to quality higher education or higher education altogether.

With the goals of formalizing activities and systematizing the application of adequate solutions which would stimulate the quality of education for students with disabilities, the Office for Students with Disabilities at the University of Zagreb was founded in March 2007. This Office should become a strong mechanism in ensuring opportunities for better quality access to higher education through a systematic approach to fulfilment of educational and psycho-social needs of students with disabilities. Furthermore, it is anticipated that this Office will participate in creating models of support for students with disabilities, which will be applied at other universities in the Republic of Croatia.

In addition, the University of Zagreb, as a member of the Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe (UNICA) accepted the Recommendations for UNICA Universities – Minimum Standards for Disabled Persons for UNICA Universities (2008), which obligates it to, among other things, take into consideration the rights of persons with disabilities while making any strategic plans and to be mindful that: ‘persons with disabilities have equal rights to higher education, and it is responsibility of higher institutions to ensure these rights; all adjustments and services for persons with disabilities are to equalize their chances, and should not affect the level of academic requirements for entry nor the academic standards to be met.’

Within the framework of Tempus project Development of University Counselling and Advisory Services (DUCAS) JEP – 41060-2006, strategies for development of student counselling and advising services at the University of Zagreb, University of Rijeka, and University of Zadar have been developed and include various forms of providing support for students with disabilities.

In two years of its existence, with strong expert support of the Commission for Students with Disabilities of the University of Zagreb, the Office has ensured adequate support for students with disabilities in overcoming objective obstacles to their daily academic life (i.e., access to adapted transportation, accessible rooms in student housing, personal assistance for students in student housing, scanning and printing of literature in Braille alphabet, provision of sign language interpreters during entrance examinations, etc.), but has not been able to overcome the largest obstacle – the problem of insufficient sensitivity to and professional competency of university employees for specific needs of students with disabilities. Although there is strong need for adaptation of academic activities to specific needs of students with disabilities, the same is often missing because of inflexibility of university employees (faculty, staff, and administrators) and/or lack of knowledge, skills, and competencies about means and methods of adjustments. We recognize that this is due to the lack of clear guidelines and standard procedures in working with students with disabilities in higher education in the Republic of Croatia. The aforementioned results in lowering of the quality of studies (due to well-meaning lessening of criteria or simple ignorance) or restriction of accessibility to student responsibilities and rights. Students with disabilities therefore decide to purse higher education less, have lower graduation rates, and the length of time till graduation is significantly longer compared to average length of study in the Republic of Croatia. Also still not organized is educational assistance for students with disabilities which could be realized through peer support at universities.

Therefore, along with quality and supervised peer support for students with disabilities, it is necessary to develop a series of educational materials, which will offer clear and understandable guidelines for possibilities of and responsibilities for adjustments of academic environments of students with disabilities, along with a series of workshops for education of educators in increasing accessibility and quality of higher education for students with disabilities. To make these activities applicable to the entire field of higher education in the Republic of Croatia, all bigger Croatian universities or their representatives should be included in the realization of proposed activities. They will participate in the creation (and distribution) of educational materials and workshops and the implementation of workshops for representatives of universities, who will in turn educate representatives of faculties and departments within faculties thereby ensuring a distribution of new attitudes, knowledge, skills, and materials. Sensitized and educated representatives of universities will be the persons responsible for ensuring minimal standards of accessibility for students with disabilities in all Croatian universities, and sensitized and educated faculty representatives will then make a network of individuals capable of offering strong support to students, educators, and administrators at faculties. Sustainability of a support network for students with disabilities in higher education in the Republic of Croatia will thus be assured. Representatives of universities - persons responsible for students with disabilities and students with disabilities themselves will collaborate on a proposal for national standards and guidelines for the development of accessibility to higher education for students with disabilities (proposal for a national document) and will begin the process for the ratification of such a document on national level. Responsible ministry will provide its feedback to the proposal and take further action. The aforementioned activities will significantly advance equalizing of opportunities in higher education for students with disabilities in Croatia. Our European partners will contribute requisite knowledge, experience, and tradition of supporting students with disabilities for the realization of proposed project activities.