SA uni­ver­si­ties must do more to be in­clu­sive

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION&ANALYSIS -

Dis­abled stu­dents lack sup­port and should take part in mak­ing de­ci­sions about their ed­u­ca­tion

It’s been a decade since South Africa signed and rat­i­fied the Con­ven­tion on the Rights of Per­sons with Dis­abil­i­ties.

The con­ven­tion is an in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights treaty that’s sup­posed to pro­tect the rights and dig­nity of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. But not much seems to have changed for South Africans with dis­abil­i­ties since 2007.

About 2.9 mil­lion – around 7.5 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion – live with some form of dis­abil­ity. Those with dis­abil­i­ties make up less than 1 per­cent of the to­tal stu­dent pop­u­la­tion.

A group that is still strug­gling to en­joy fair­ness and jus­tice in how they are treated are univer­sity stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties.

I con­ducted re­search to un­der­stand more how such stu­dents cope. As part of my study, I in­ter­viewed 14 stu­dents from two South African uni­ver­si­ties. I wanted to hear about their daily ex­pe­ri­ences and to find out how they are in­cluded – or not – in mak­ing de­ci­sions about their ed­u­ca­tion and op­por­tu­ni­ties.

My re­search shows that the few stu­dents that are ad­mit­ted at South African uni­ver­si­ties still feel ex­cluded within th­ese in­sti­tu­tions.

One of the things I wanted to un­pack was how “in­clu­sion” is un­der­stood and de­fined.

It is of­ten as­sumed that in­clud­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties in pub­lic projects is good; ex­clud­ing them is bad. But this ap­proach fails to ques­tion and cap­ture the sub­tle dy­nam­ics within an agenda of “in­clu­sion”. Proper in­clu­sion im­plies mul­ti­di­men­sional sup­port that is fi­nan­cial, so­cial and aca­demic in na­ture and ex­tends to poli­cies. It is not enough to con­sider phys­i­cal ac­cess and the very pres­ence of stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties “in­clu­sive”.

My re­search showed that very few stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties feel “in­cluded” at South African uni­ver­si­ties.

The other chal­lenge with the cur­rent no­tion of in­clu­sion within South Africa’s higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is that stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties are all lumped to­gether as a ho­mo­ge­neous group.

Author­i­ties adopt a “one size fits all” ap­proach to dis­abil­ity rather than see­ing that there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween a wheel­chair user and some­one who is vis­ually im­paired. Stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties are not all the same. They have some things in com­mon, of course. But they also have dif­fer­ent needs and pref­er­ences.

Uni­ver­si­ties are re­luc­tant to change any of their sys­tems or struc­tures. The sense from univer­sity author­i­ties ap­pears to be that stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties must “fit in” to ex­ist­ing struc­tures rather than in­sti­tu­tions chang­ing 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 bur­sary for stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties.

But money is not enough to guar­an­tee in­clu­sion. The stu­dents I in­ter­viewed said that uni­ver­si­ties’ day to day op­er­a­tions and sys­tems per­pet­u­ated struc­tural and ide­o­log­i­cal bar­ri­ers. At one of the uni­ver­si­ties, only one of the halls of res­i­dence, which catered for post­grad­u­ates, could ac­com­mo­date stu­dents with wheel­chairs. This left wheel­chair-bound un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents feel­ing iso­lated from their peers.

The stu­dents I in­ter­viewed 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 num­bers of stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties en­rolled each year. In­stead, they must work to cre­ate more eq­ui­table, just ed­u­ca­tion for stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties. To do so, each in­sti­tu­tion will need to un­der­take a care­ful, rig­or­ous process of en­quiry into how dif­fer­ent bar­ri­ers emerge and are re­pro­duced. With­out a broader un­der­stand­ing of dis­abil­ity, it will be dif­fi­cult to en­gage with the com­plex ways in which in­equal­i­ties emerge 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 an amanu­en­sis (scribe) ser­vice dur­ing tests and ex­ams, ac­com­mo­dat­ing ex­tra time and in­di­vid­ual tu­tor ses­sions.

Other uni­ver­si­ties are also im­prov­ing their sys­tems for stu­dents with dis­abli­ties: the Univer­sity of Venda of­fers Braille print­ing and com­puter train­ing to stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties.

Gen­uinely in­clud­ing stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties pro­vides for the de­vel­op­ment of ap­pro­pri­ate at­ti­tudes to­wards di­ver­sity and the cre­ation of en­vi­ron­ments where every stu­dent, in­clud­ing those with­out dis­abil­i­ties, will have the op­por­tu­nity to flour­ish in their univer­sity en­deav­ours. – The Con­ver­a­tion

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