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Universities’ inclusion of disabled students is limited


It has been a decade since South Africa ratified and signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities but not much seems to have changed.

About 2.9-million South Africans – roughly 7.5% of the population – live with some form of disability. But those with disabilities make up less than 1% of the total student population, a group that struggles to enjoy fairness and justice in the way in which they are treated at universities.

As part of a study, I interviewed 14 of them from two universities. I wanted to hear about their daily experiences and to find out how they’re included – or not – in making decisions about their education and opportunities.

It is often assumed that including people with disabilities in public projects is good and excluding them is bad. But this approach fails to question the subtle dynamics of “inclusion”. Proper inclusion implies multidimensional support that is financial, social and academic, and must be supported by policies. It is not enough to regard physical access and the presence of students with disabilities as inclusive.

My research showed that very few students with disabilities feel included.

The other problem with the current notion of inclusion in the higher education system is that students with disabilities are lumped together as a homogeneous group.

Authorities adopt a one-size-fits-all approach rather than realising that there’s a difference between a wheelchair user and someone who is visually impaired. Students with disabilities are not all the same.

Universities are reluctant to change any of their systems or structures. The approach of university authorities appears to be that students with disabilities must fit into existing structures rather than that the institutions must change to accommodate them.

Education authorities seem to think it’s enough to offer financial support. One example of this is the National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s (NSFAS) bursary for students with disabilities.

But money is not enough to guarantee inclusion. The students said that universities’ day-to-day operations and systems perpetuated structural and ideological barriers. At the one university, only one of the postgraduates residences could accommodate students with wheelchairs.

This made the wheelchair-bound students feel isolated. They reported feeling undervalued and somehow “impaired”.

What can be done to ensure such students feel genuinely included?

Universities must move beyond measuring inclusion based only on the number of students with disabilities they have enrolled each year. Instead, they must work to create more equitable, just education for students with disabilities. Every institution needs to undertake a detailed investigation of the barriers these students face.

Without a broader understanding of disability, it will be difficult to address the complex ways in which inequalities develop and are sustained. This can be achieved. One of the institutions on which I based my research, the University of the Free State, has put in place several initiatives to help students with disabilities. Its Centre for Universal Access and Disability Support provides specialised support services, including individual tutor sessions and an amanuensis (scribe) service during tests and exams.

Other universities are improving their systems for students with disabilities: the University of Venda does Braille printing and provides students with disabilities with computer training.

Genuinely including students with disabilities will lead to the development of an appropriate approach to diversity and the creation of environments in which all students will have the opportunity to flourish. –

The Conversation

Oliver Mutanga is a Marie Curie Scientia research fellow at the University of Oslo

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