/ 1 September 2023

Casual Day reminds us we need a society where the disabled can thrive

Pupils with disabilities face big struggles with access to transport to and from schools

Celebrated annually on the first Friday in September, Casual Day — a national fundraising and awareness campaign for persons with disabilities — serves as a reminder that we must all work together to create an inclusive and equitable society in which people with disabilities can reach their full potential. 

People with disabilities have made remarkable strides regarding integration into society. Widespread societal exclusion was rife particularly prior to the onset of human rights legislation globally and locally. 

Legislation such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has gone a long way to broaden participation. Closer to home, the Constitution seeks redress with reference to race, gender and disability, to name a few of the areas in society where discrimination was legislated. 

September is also Deaf Awareness Month with the International Day of Sign Languages (23 September) and the International Week of the Deaf being observed during the last week of the month. South African Sign Language (SASL) has recently become the 12th official language of the country — long overdue given that SASL has been recognised in law through the South African Schools Act in 1996 and has already been part of the school curriculum for deaf people since 2014. 

The signing into law of SASL as an official language will hopefully help to promote the rights of persons who are deaf or hard of hearing as they remain under-represented and under-supported in educational spaces. 

Although pockets of expertise exist in schools and universities, it is the basic education sector, in particular, that needs more teachers (including deaf teachers) trained in SASL to improve the educational standards and outcomes of deaf learners in the entire educational system. 

Much more effort needs to go into ensuring practices that follow policies created for deaf learners, such as teaching in their home language, which is SASL. However, even within an established inclusive framework and despite various pro-disability policies, deaf learners still experience numerous barriers, including psychosocial, economic and financial challenges. 

Unsurprisingly, the educational outcomes of persons who are deaf are still among the worst in South Africa. Some of the contributing factors are the lack of knowledge and training on how to address the educational and learning needs of deaf learners, misperceptions about their ability to succeed, and insufficient deaf teacher training. 

It is crucial that the training of deaf educators is improved to ensure credible educational outcomes in basic education. This will result in more deaf students reaching the post-school education and training system and raise the bar for deaf people regarding qualifications and improve their quality of life and standard of living.

The fact that SASL is part of the school curriculum has necessitated the higher education sector to be more proactive about the inclusion of SASL at tertiary institutions. 

Stellenbosch University has put in place several strategies, regulations and policies to ensure that all students can optimise their potential by creating equitable opportunities for this to happen. The university’s language policy includes SASL as a recognised language of teaching and learning which enables us to have SASL interpreters to support the training of deaf students at the university. 

Through the disability access policy, we are able to implement a universally designed curriculum that provides students with multiple or flexible ways of accessing material, viewing or listening to information, expression, and engagement. 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a way of thinking about how teaching and learning can be improved to give all students an equal opportunity to succeed. Using UDL will ensure that our classrooms are more inclusive. Having policies in place and thinking creatively about how we teach and how students learn, is an important part of inclusion. 

However, a range of resources and flexible thinking is still needed to enable equitability. Since students with disabilities are multifaceted (as all students are) and could need support in numerous ways, collaboration between different role-players — support services, the student and the faculty — is required to optimise their academic potential and enable their success. 

This is the best way to achieve the desired results as working in isolation is counterproductive. We recently had two deaf students who graduated in our faculty of education and who are now able to teach learners in the foundation phase.

Other tertiary institutions should consider making UDL part of their educational practices. This will help to improve inclusion for deaf and other students with disabilities in and outside the classroom, and enable them to succeed. 

The UDL approach can be used to enable the successful training of deaf student teachers, thereby raising the standard of the education of deaf learners and adding to equitable redress and advancing social justice for people with disabilities in South Africa.

Marcia Lyner-Cleophas, Claudia Saunderson and Lizelle Apollis work at the Disability Unit in the Centre for Student Counselling and Development at Stellenbosch University. 

This article is based on their chapter in Building Inclusive Education in K-12 Classrooms and Higher Education: Theories and Principles (IGI Global, 2023).