Capetown Student Accomodation

Coping with Disabilities in University

Managing disabilities in university is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ scenario. Just because a higher education facility states that they have an ‘inclusion’ policy does not guarantee that disabled students feel included at all.


As always, there are two sides to the story. On the one hand, there is the educational facility, both in terms of structural and physical considerations as well as the necessary ‘educating the educators’ as to how to manage and treat students with disabilities who attend university.  On the other hand, there is a challenge for disabled students to let go of an often-innate sense of entitlement and instead, work toward understanding why others may not be getting the picture. 

What University Facilities Can Do for Students with Disabilities

As is dominantly the case with learning institutions countrywide, numbers count. But to measure what adjustment to make based on how many students with disabilities they’ve enrolled each year will leave them falling horribly short. 


What is needed is for universities to more equitable and fair educational opportunities for students with disabilities. That means paying attention to getting a grip on the complex ways in which inequalities emerge in their particular facility.


Outside funding has proven to be very successful, so there’s no need for universities to stretch their own budget. 


Developing good relationships with their disabled students will go miles to ensure efforts to help are not left to guesswork.


What Students with Disabilities Can Do for Universities?

Students with disabilities grapple with layers of disadvantage. The win-win approach is what will facilitate real and positive change. That means helping others understand what each one’s specific needs really are.


Being patient is key. Abled people get it wrong all the time. They ask if there’s Braille for the Deaf and forget that the blind can’t see the screen. Until they’ve ‘ridden a mile in your wheelchair’, they’ll never understand the challenges those who use them face.


Never expect things to be ‘done for you’. “Be the change you want to see in the world”, advised Mahatma Gandhi. Speak up by all means but never demand. Express but never try to impress. Gratitude for what arrangements have been attempted, however inadequately, will go further toward improvements than complaints ever will. 


How are SA Universities doing for Students with Disabilities? 

The Parent section of News24 explored this subject via an article Oliver Mutanga -Marie Curie Scientia Research Fellow, the University of Oslo.  He spoke up for the struggle for how students with disabilities are treated at universities. Here are his findings:


  • 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.
  • The University of Venda offers Braille printing and computer training to students with disabilities.


The education section of a January 2019 issue of Mail&Guardian further notes:


  • The disability service at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is playing a critical role in enabling students with disabilities to cope with their studies.


Thanks to funding from the FirstRand Foundation (Tshikululu Social Investments) with tailor-made support such as Braille readers and South African Sign Language (SASL) interpreters, note-takers and similar human support, technical aids, improved transport and bursaries to assist students with learning and physical disabilities.


UCT Case studies:


  • A Ph.D. student who was experiencing writing difficulties and considered giving up her studies was helped by Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software. 


  • A mechanical engineering student with low vision has been using a Transformer HD magnifier to help with the technical drawings he needs for his course. 


  • Another visually impaired student uses the portable Zoomax Snow 7 magnifier to read their lecture materials.


  • One student has been given a wheelchair bag in which to transport heavy books.


As SA universities rise to the challenge, it is incumbent on university students with disabilities to explore which facility best serves their particular needs and aim to get there. The good news is there is growing awareness and organisations are willing to provide funding for disabilities in universities.