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Academics with disabilities: South African universities need an overhaul to make them genuinely inclusive

Rearview photo of a woman sitting in her wheelchair, in an office with bookshelves and a desk in the background
Academics with disabilities need support to ensure they’re fully included in university life. LumiNola

Very little research has been conducted about academics with disabilities working in South African universities. This means their stories, and the challenges they face in the daily demands of their jobs, are not often told. Sibonokuhle Ndlovu, who holds a PhD in education and lectures on the subject, explains what her study of academics with disabilities revealed.

How many academics with disabilities are working in South Africa’s universities?

We’re not sure. Statistics are hard to find, whether from individual institutions or the country’s education authorities. There’s also not been much research about academics with disabilities in the country. Government data suggests that 22.4% of people aged 15 or older have some sort of “functional difficulty” – ranging from disabilities related to sight and hearing to mobility and cognitive challenges.

And we do know that students with disabilities enrolled in South Africa’s institutions of higher education make up less than 1% of the student population.

In short, there are relatively few academics with disabilities. But that doesn’t mean their needs and concerns should be ignored. For one thing, disability rights are enshrined in the country’s constitution. In the higher education sector, there have been calls for the country’s universities to become truly African institutions that cater to everyone. This inclusion must extend to people with disabilities, whether they are students or staff.

What was the purpose of your study?

Because there is so little research about academics with disabilities, I analysed South African research about the exclusion of students with disabilities. Understanding their difficulties helped me to understand academics’ issues, since many are the same (for instance, accessing physical spaces, conducting research and engaging with the broader university community).

I identified two major challenges that academics with disabilities face. First, inaccessible physical environments. Second, difficulty conducting research because of their impairments.

Most institutions’ lecture halls, toilets and libraries are not easily used by academics with disabilities. Something as fundamental as getting to a venue on time to deliver a lecture is difficult. Their lateness may frustrate students, affecting the lecturers’ professional reputations.

Some universities have tried to make buildings accessible, through renovating or retrofitting old buildings. The principles of Universal Design are being applied at some institutions when new buildings are constructed. This approach considers the mobility needs of all people, with and without disabilities, from the outset.

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The second challenge relates to research. Like all other academics in higher education, academics with disabilities are expected to conduct research as part of their work. But impairment-related challenges can hinder research that requires some senses such as sight or hearing.

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When conducting certain types of research, the things people do not say are seen in their facial expressions – for instance, frowns and smiles can reveal a great deal of meaning. Academics with visual impairments are unable to spot these unspoken gestures.

Academics with hearing disabilities face similar problems. Sign language interpreters can be very helpful, but this is a scarce skill in South Africa. And, because interpreters are human beings, if they take leave or fall ill during a research project, valuable time is lost. The risk here is that academics with disabilities may be slower to publish research than their peers, which compromises their careers.

In areas of study such as medicine or engineering, using certain equipment can pose a challenge. An academic who cannot see when required to use a small needle on a patient, for instance, will struggle to complete the task.

Higher education institutions should consider how to support academics in these areas, perhaps by providing research assistants.

Aren’t there policies to support academics with disabilities?

There is national policy related to disability in higher education; it was only adopted quite recently, in 2018.

But there’s a big gap in the policy: it doesn’t consider different categories of disabilities. Instead it looks at people with disabilities as if they all have the same challenges and needs, which simply isn’t the case.

Some universities have their own institutional disability policies, but I found over and over again in my research that students and academics with disabilities weren’t often invited to contribute. The policies were made for them rather than with them, which resulted in policies that simply didn’t work.

The reality is that academics with disabilities are considered “the other”. It’s not enough for universities to talk about “transforming” into new, truly African institutions. What needs to be transformed are university environments themselves. They require a total change in policy, buildings, attitudes – a total overhaul of the spaces to make them genuinely inclusive to everyone, including academics with disabilities.

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