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UCT gives students with disabilities hope

The disability service at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is playing a critical role in enabling students with disabilities to cope with their studies, thanks to funding from the FirstRand Foundation (Tshikululu Social Investments).

These students are, in turn, inspiring others with their stories of perseverance and resilience and have expressed gratitude for the way they have been assisted with tailor-made support such as Braille readers and South African Sign Language (SASL) interpreters.

Loretta Feris, UCT’s deputy vice-chancellor of transformation, explained how the support has been geared towards the individual needs of each student. “Disability is often the forgotten part of transformation in our society, but this should change.

“Many students with disabilities grapple with layers of disadvantage. If we want to ensure the success of all students, we need to ensure the equity of success of students with disabilities.”

The FirstRand Foundation granted the disability service more than R11-million earlier this year to support students who rely on the unit to thrive at the university and excel academically. This has enabled the service to appoint SASL interpreters, note takers and similar human support, technical aids, improved transport and bursaries to assist students with learning and physical disabilities.

Jamie Adams, a psychology honours student who lost her right leg in a motorbike accident in 2013, said the staff of the disability service had been an “amazing” source of encouragement, and her bursary had helped immensely. She has also been able to write her exams in the disability unit instead of in the usual exam venue, which has many steps to navigate.

Adams is full of enthusiasm and is a role model to others. She has been admitted into the global Golden Key International Honour Society, a nonprofit organisation based in the United States that recognises academic excellence, for being in the top 15% of her class.

Edwina Ghall, manager of disability services at UCT, said it was important for the students to feel included. “This is their space and we want them to own it and feel at home here. This is all about inclusion and we hope to bring about further change in this environment.”

Students with disabilities have been helped in many ways. A PhD student who was experiencing writing difficulties and considered giving up her studies was helped by Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software. A mechanical engineering student with low vision has been using a Transformer HD magnifier to help with the technical drawings he needs for his course. Another visually impaired student uses the portable Zoomax Snow 7 magnifier to read their lecture materials.

A student has been given a wheelchair bag in which to transport heavy books and a blind master’s student will soon benefit from a portable Orbit Braille reader.

The fund has also paid for a carer for a blind master’s student so that he can get to lectures and other venues. Students also have assistance from note takers in lectures and tutorials, as well as scribes during exams. Several students with disabilities have been supported by the fund with bursaries that include tuition fees, accommodation and a book allowance.

The service has acquired a new vehicle, which will be adapted to transport students and staff with disabilities, making the unit the first at an academic institution in the Western Cape to provide accessible transport. The vehicle will supplement UCT’s nine-seater bus, which can accommodate three wheelchairs, as well as another smaller vehicle.

Students who have learning difficulties are also assisted, such as Tumishang Selamulela, who described how he had battled to keep up with the pace of his mechanical engineering degree. “It took me eight years to get to the end of a four-year degree. Eventually an educational psychologist determined that I had a learning disorder.

“Somebody gave me a chance and I appreciate it. The extra time is a relief and it’s made such a difference. I am on a journey and I will get my degree. It’s given me new hope.” — University of Cape Town

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