The Teiresias Centre (the official name is the Support Centre for Students with Special Needs) has been an office of the Rectorate at Masaryk University since the year 2000. The Centre's primary task is to provide maximum accessibility to all accredited degree programmes at the University for the visually impaired, the deaf and hearing impaired, people with limited or restricted mobility and people with other types of disabilities. In the University's organizational structure, the Centre is one of the offices at the Rectorate to be concerned with student issues, along with the Office for Studies and Office for Student Welfare.
The Centre also coordinates the life-long education programme for the blind. This programme's objective is to allow the blind, regardless of age or social status, to enhance their education in accredited subjects.
There are no official statistics on the number of physically people with disabilities in the Czech Republic and all official reports on this topic, including reports from the Government Board for People with Disabilities, begin with an exploration of the statistical elusiveness of this phenomenon and the estimation of Czech numbers on the basis of statistics from other countries. The Czech National Plan on Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities simply adopts the estimates developed for the government in 1992 by J. Hrubý in his report "Report on the Situation of the Physically Handicapped":
"It is generally accepted that about ten percent of the population has physical disability. This means that in the Czech Republic there are about one million people with some physical disability. Let me attempt to further estimate the numbers for various types of disabilities. Using information from Sweden (Hamphshire, B., Brunér, C. J. and Verktyg, M.: Data Bases and Disability, The Swedish Institute for Handicapped, 1987), which I have extrapolated for the Czech Republic and adjusted upwards by twenty percent to allow for differences in environments and lifestyles between Sweden and the Czech Republic, the following estimates are:
When these numbers are converted to percentages, they are as follows:
- 0.6 % of the population is visually impaired (0.03 – 0.045 % completely blind)
- 3 % of the population is hearing impaired (0.15 % profoundly deaf)
- 3 % of the population have restricted mobility (1.5 % have major disability).
These estimates of course do not apply to all age groups in the population equally, but increase significantly with age. For this reason, statistics presented in the Report written by the Teiresias Centre for the Rector of Masaryk University are based on school-aged children and are modelled on statistics from the United States (a report by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services of the U.S. Department of Education for 2002 and a 1997 report by Jack McNeil from the U.S. Census Bureau). These two sets of statistics, however, present conflicting data. While statistics from the Census Bureau show that in the 15-24 age group:
- 0.5 % are visually impaired (0.1 % severely), and
- 0.6 % are hearing impaired (0.06 % severely);
- 0.15 % are severely visually impaired, and
- 0.4 % are severely hearing impaired.
We can simplify these discrepancies with a general statement that the percentage of visually impaired school-age individuals ranges between 0.15 and 0.5 percent and for the hearing impaired in the same group, the range is between 0.06 and 0.6 percent. Transferring these statistics back into absolute numbers means that for the Czech Republic, where the number of people between the ages of 20 and 24 is 790,000 (according to statistics from the Czech Statistical Office), there should be in this age group between:
- 1,200 – 4,000 visually impaired people, and
- 500 – 5,000 hearing impaired people.
Given that Masaryk University has 27,000 students (according to statistics from 2003), which is 3.5 percent of the Czech university-aged population, it should theoretically have:
- 40-140 visually impaired students, and
- 16-160 hearing impaired students.
It is easy to understand that a university with financial constraints on what can be provided for the study of those who need no extra care will want to invest all of its resources in that area rather than diverting resources to provide for the needs of minority interest groups. The fact that the blind are a relatively small minority is indisputable. It is therefore no surprise that when the establishment of the Centre was discussed by the Academic Senate in January 2000, questions were raised about whether it was proper and desirable to have such a facility at an institution of higher education.
The fact of the matter is, however, at the time the establishment of the Teiresias Centre was being discussed, Charles University in Prague already had its Carolina Assistance Centre for Visually Impaired People and the Institute of Basic Rehabilitation of the Blind, the Czech Technical University in Prague had its Tereza Support Centre for Visually Impaired Students, and Palacký University in Olomouc had its Assistance Centre for People with Disabilities. The situation at Masaryk University was, however, unique in several respects and the University need not be ashamed of the fact that its assistance centre was launched slightly later.
Services for students with visual impairments at Czech institutions of higher education may be characterized as taking one of two approaches. The larger and more prominent group of institutions providing practical assistance to the people with physical disabilities fall into a category that may, for reasons of simplicity, be called the information technologies group. These centres were established within the framework of European programmes for development (e.g. Tempus) at institutions with a background in the information sciences (Carolina at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of Charles University, Tereza at the Department of Mathematics of the Faculty of Nuclear Science and Physical Engineering of the Czech Technical University), without taking into consideration whether or not there were any blind students at those faculties. On the other hand, at least some of these centres' staff consisted of teachers and research workers with a visual disability. The reason is very simple: they are the people for whom IT is the key tool in their work. The focal point of these two centres are expensively equipped computer rooms for visually impaired people that have become a natural professional and cultural centre for the blind and partially sighted community interested in these matters, regardless of whether they are students of that school or not (this is particularly true of the Tereza Centre which was - and still is - a consultant to and a model for the Brno facility). These people are then the principal target audience for courses teaching the use of specific hardware and software. The infrastructure at such facilities, as is common in the IT environment, is directly provided for by companies that develop or distribute the software: Galop, RosaSoft, BrailleTech, Spektra, Elvos, Adaptech, Brailcom, etc.
Assistance for the blind at educational consultancy centres established at the initiative of special education departments is conceived very different (e.g. at the Assistance Centre for People with Disabilities in Olomouc and the recently opened University Centre for Students with Special Needs at the University of Hradec Králové). Technology and information science are not the focus of attention, the infrastructure for these centres is provided by the universities' departments and by the educational institutions for which students are trained in these departments: early assistance centres for families with children with sight impairment, centres for special education, Tyfloservis, TyfloCentrum, the Czech Blind United organisation, etc. The obvious advantage is their effort to integrate services for people with different physical disabilities.
In this context, the Teiresias Centre is unique for several reasons. First is that it came into existence not as the result of the Tempus programme but as a project of the Higher Education Development Fund. Secondly, both approaches (based on information science and special education) have been combined here from the very beginning. Finally, the Centre has focused on addressing the negative consequences of integration as well as on special training. To achieve this, the Centre emphasizes direct specialized training in special university subjects (tactile philology, tactile mathematics) rather than training in orientation methods, mobility skills or working with special-purpose technologies. It serves as a training centre with a broad range of its own special training programmes and is a specialized department of the University with the right to register and enrol students with visual impairment in the MU Information System. The Centre also operates as a consulting centre for secondary school students and is the only facility of its kind in the Czech Republic that publishes books in Braille and serves as an academic library.
The original idea to establish a centre (which was originally intended only for blind and partially sighted students) in Brno was developed independently at three different faculties. At the initiative of the Rector, a working group consisting of Professor Jiří Zlatuška, Assistant Professor Renata Ochranová and Assistant Professor Ivan Kopeček was set up at the Faculty of Informatics to examine the use of information technologies for people with sight impairment. Employees of the United Organisation of the Blind and Partially Sighted maintained contact with the working group, as did the staff of the Department of Special Education at the Faculty of Education (Professor Marie Vítková and Dr. Zita Nováková-Sýkorová). Another group involved in development was the Faculty of Arts, where a facility for the study of Classical languages was equipped with information technology purchased with funds from the Higher Education Development Fund, the Faculty and other sponsors. This allowed students with impaired eyesight to study Classical languages. The experience gained here in the digital processing of texts using different alphabets (Greek, Linear B, special epigraphic characters, Hebrew, etc.) proved to be an inspired starting point for the processing of Braille texts. It was a third stimulus that proved to be the strongest: the Rector of the University responded to a call from the Faculty of Arts and submitted a proposal for the establishment of an assistance centre at the Faculty of Informatics (a blind student had just been enrolled at this faculty and it was necessary to provide him with materials in linear algebra, mathematical analysis, and other subjects that extensively use special symbols). In the spring of 1999, the dean of the Faculty of Informatics, Assistant Professor Luděk Matyska allocated the basic infrastructure for the project. The Faculty of Informatics also submitted a successful grant proposal to the Higher Education Development Fund (Project 912/00). This allowed the Centre to acquire the suitable equipment. As soon as it became clear that the Centre would serve the needs of the whole University, the centre was made directly accountable to the Rector (this became official in May 2000 after its approval by the Academic Senate Masaryk University in January 2000).
This complicated course of gradual mergers of different streams continues to define the Centre's character today: it is the only university centre enjoying the status of a centralized university facility, a Braille publisher and an academic library, an educational centre organising its own courses (ten tutorial courses complementing or replacing courses in accredited degree programmes and thirty courses in the Life-long Education programme), a specialised educational facility with the right to register and enrol students with impaired vision in the MU Information System and a consulting centre for secondary school students.