Stu­dents say ‘dis­abil­ity-friendly’

Young peo­ple with im­pair­ments are hav­ing their aca­demic dreams dashed by in­sen­si­tive lec­tur­ers

Mail & Guardian - - News - Bongek­ile Macupe

The Univer­sity of Lim­popo is widely re­garded as one of the best in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing for peo­ple liv­ing with dis­abil­i­ties. Its spe­cially de­signed Dis­abled Stu­dents Unit is meant to pro­vide “ap­pro­pri­ate sup­port ser­vices to em­power per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties on cam­pus and in the com­mu­nity through ed­u­ca­tion, train­ing and de­vel­op­ment, en­cour­ag­ing in­de­pen­dence and ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in the aca­demic and so­cioe­co­nomic world”.

But stu­dents at the univer­sity dis­agree, say­ing that, al­though cam­pus fa­cil­i­ties such as res­i­dences are tai­lored to their needs, the aca­demic pro­gramme fails to ac­com­mo­date them.

Blind stu­dents are par­tic­u­larly af­fected, of­ten hav­ing to de­fer their as­sign­ments be­cause they have not re­ceived their Braille notes on time. They claim the univer­sity does not have enough ca­pac­ity to pro­duce the num­ber of Braille texts re­quired.

Ndi­vhuwo Mat­shanisi, from Ma­tovha vil­lage in Venda, says the sole Braille pro­ducer em­ployed by the univer­sity re­lies on a stu­dent as­sis­tant, who is some­times un­avail­able be­cause of his own aca­demic obli­ga­tions.

“We end up not hav­ing notes on time be­cause he has not [re­ceived] help. The work­load is over­whelm­ing,” she says.

Mat­shanisi is a second-year bach­e­lor of arts trans­la­tion and lin­guis­tics stu­dent.

The univer­sity was not her first choice for her ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion but her for­mer high school teacher en­cour­aged her to study there and even ap­plied on her be­half. “She told me this univer­sity is the best univer­sity in the coun­try for peo­ple liv­ing with dis­abil­ity.”

But her two years at the univer­sity tells a dif­fer­ent story. She claps her hands when speak­ing, as if to em­pha­sise her point.

“I can’t say this univer­sity is the best. Re­mem­ber, I’m here for my aca­demics. I want to be a pro­fes­sor one day. But if I’m strug­gling with my aca­demics, how can I say this univer­sity is the best? It’s not. Our aim is not to sit here in a good ac­com­mo­da­tion and to eat, but it is to ex­cel aca­dem­i­cally.”

Mat­shanisi ma­tric­u­lated at the Filadelfia Sec­ondary School, a spe­cial-needs school in Soshanguve, Pre­to­ria. Her face lights up as she re­counts her school­ing ca­reer. She was a top achiever and all her learn­ing needs were met.

She has not found that same level of aca­demic sup­port at the Univer­sity of Lim­popo.

“The classes are not ac­ces­si­ble, the re­sources are not even enough for us, so the univer­sity is not the best at all,” she says.

Ac­cord­ing to data col­lected in the 2011 cen­sus, 80% of dis­abled peo­ple aged 20 to 24 are not pur­su­ing a ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion. This is de­spite the fact that 7.5% of all South Africans live with a dis­abil­ity.

Mat­shanisi first en­rolled for a me­dia stud­ies course and, al­though she en­joyed it, she was forced to choose an­other be­cause the con­di­tions were not con­ducive to her dis­abil­ity.

She is sit­ting in a dark room on her bed in the Khanya House res­i­dence, her notes scat­tered around her, when we meet.

“Aag, for me it does not mat­ter whether the lights are on or off,” she chuck­les. “But you can switch them on.”

She says that, as a blind per­son, her first contact with any­one is their voice. “I need to be fa­mil­iar with your voice first before I can lis­ten to what you are say­ing. It’s what I do in class as well.”

One class she at­tended while still reg­is­tered for me­dia stud­ies had up to 10 lec­tur­ers in one se­mes­ter.

“I strug­gled be­cause the classes were big; you could eas­ily have 900 of us in a class. Peo­ple would be mak­ing noise and they [the lec­tur­ers] were not us­ing mi­cro­phones. And a per­son will come for one day or two days in a week and next week it’s an­other one. So, when I’m con­fused, I don’t know who should I con­sult.”

Mat­shanisi is not alone in her strug­gles.

Last month, a group of dis­abled stu­dents led by the Dis­abil­ity Stu­dent Or­gan­i­sa­tion at the univer­sity held a protest to high­light the dif­fi­cul­ties they en­counter, which are mainly to do with the lack of re­sources. But it is the “ig­no­rance” of lec­tur­ers who fail to ac­com­mo­date stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties that they say is the most dif­fi­cult to deal with.

This is par­tic­u­larly in­fu­ri­at­ing when they miss ex­ams be­cause a lec­turer has “for­got­ten” about them.

Stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties write their tests and ex­ams at the dis­abil­ity cen­tre, which has all the nec­es­sary equip­ment, such as com­put­ers with speech syn­the­sis­ers for blind stu­dents.

Af­ter pre­par­ing a ques­tion pa­per, lec­tur­ers are meant to sub­mit the script to the exam cen­tre, where it is for­mat­ted in Braille and then taken to the stu­dents at the cen­tre. But some­times this does not hap­pen.

“Some­times you are sup­posed to write a test at 1pm and you end up wait­ing un­til 3pm at the cen­tre and no one comes with your ques­tion pa­per. And when you con­front the lec­turer, they will sim­ply say: ‘Ah, I for­got you are writ­ing at the DSU [Dis­abled Stu­dents Unit]. I for­got to sub­mit your ques­tion pa­per,’” Mat­shanisi says.

“Some of them will even be rude to you when you con­front them [with the fact] that you did not write.

“They be­have as if it’s your fault, but I was there on time to write and I even re­minded them to do the ques­tion pa­per. Some of them don’t ad­mit that they are wrong. They will tell us: ‘You are not se­ri­ous; you don’t take your work se­ri­ously and you’re go­ing to fail.’ Who must fail when it’s their fault? It hurts. It’s painful,” she says.

But some­times other prob­lems crop up, such as Braille tests that are rid­dled with er­rors, which is a re­sult of em­ploy­ees at the exam cen­tre not be­ing trained in Braille, she says.

“When you con­front the peo­ple at the exam cen­tre about the mis­takes, they will just say: ‘Ah, there is noth­ing we can do. Go talk to your lec­turer’ — and your lec­turer would think that you want free marks,” she says.

Mat­shanisi is also de­pen­dent on the help of friends. The speech syn­the­siser pro­gramme on her lap­top does not cor­rect spell­ing mis­takes, so she has to en­list the help of a friend to edit her work.

“In Septem­ber, I wanted to sub­mit my English as­sign­ment and, ob­vi­ously, be­cause I can’t edit for my­self, I asked one of my friends to edit for me. I thought she loved me and in­stead she in­tro­duced mis­takes in my as­sign­ment. So it’s painful; we have chal­lenges even when do­ing our as­sign­ments.”

It’s even worse for mother-tongue mod­ules such as Tshiv­enda be­cause the pro­gramme does not recog­nise the lan­guage at all.

“I just write and some­times I don’t even get some­one to edit for me. So ob­vi­ously the lec­turer, when mark­ing, will see the spell­ing mis­takes but there is noth­ing I can do.”

The chair­per­son of the Dis­abil­ity Stu­dent Or­gan­i­sa­tion, Sthem­biso Mthiyane, says it’s prob­lems like th­ese that led to the protest last month.

“We had to fight for our rights. Is­sues re­lat­ing to dis­abil­i­ties had been ig­nored,” she said last week.

She was speak­ing dur­ing a dis­abil­ity aware­ness cam­paign or­gan­ised by the or­gan­i­sa­tion in an ef­fort to ex­pose lec­tur­ers to the chal­lenges stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties face and to show lec­tur­ers how they can be more em­pa­thetic.

She told the lec­tur­ers that she re­ceives com­plaints from blind stu­dents and, as a stu­dent her­self, she of­ten does not know how to help them.

“They will come to me and tell me that in class lec­tur­ers do not con­sider them and while teach­ing they like say­ing: ‘As you can see’ — and they

Frus­trated: Some Braille fa­cil­i­ties are avail­able (above) at the Univer­sity of Lim­popo, but Ndi­vhuwo Mat­shanisi and Alina Mo­fana (be­low) say they are in­suf­fi­cient and that classes are in­ac­cess­ble.

Pho­tos: Oupa Nkosi

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