South Africa’s universities can do more to make disabled students feel included

It’s not enough just to enroll disabled students at universities. They need particular support. Shutterstock

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 South Africans – around 7.5% of the total population – live with some form of disability. Those with disabilities make up less than 1% of the total student population.

A group that is still struggling to enjoy fairness and justice in how they’re 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’re 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.

Understanding “inclusion”

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 (NSFAS) 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.

Students feel undervalued

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 they’ve 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.