Access to education for people with disabilities

13 years since South Africa signed the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, has enough been done especially in terms of access to education for people with disabilities?

Duncan Yates, the Mental Health and Neurodiversity Co-ordinator at the Wits Disability Rights Unit (DRU), says that although some progress has been made in addressing the needs of students with disabilities, much still needs to change to ensure access, equality and full inclusion.

Duncan, who has been working in the field of disability support over the past 10 years, says that the policies are great, but implementation is lacking.

“We have also had major setbacks for people with disabilities with regards to removing barriers due to past inequalities, corruption and political instability. When it comes to transformation, disability is often mentioned but not made a priority as the focus is still on other areas of social justice,”

he says
Incorporating universal design

He says that ideally, universal design should be at the forefront of designing our cities, buildings and transportation infrastructure. For example, if people with disabilities cannot access public transport, then their job prospects will be very low. Aside from the physical barriers, South Africa still needs to improve education on disability awareness to eradicate the attitudinal barriers that impact people with disabilities participating fully in society.

It is self-evident that all students deserve nothing less than quality education and training that provides them with opportunities for lifelong learning, the world of work and meaningful participation in society as productive citizens. Inclusive education in the Post-School Education and Training (PSET) sector is non-negotiable and long-term commitments from all stakeholders are needed, including an enabling teaching and learning environment that promotes student access and success.

Enabling the rights of persons with disabilities

Education and training provide knowledge and skills that people with disabilities can use to exercise a range of other human rights, such as the right to political participation, the right to work, the right to live independently and the right to contribute to the community. All people should be valued as members of a barrier-free society and treated with dignity and respect (Human Rights Commission, 2002: 4).

“Human Rights embodies the values of respect for differences, equality of opportunity, access and full participation with the same fundamental rights in all aspects of social life, including the right to education,”

he says

The majority of persons with severe difficulties across all functional domains aged between 20 to 24 years do not attend university in South Africa, with only about one-fifth of them gaining access (Department of Social Development SA, 2014).

Moving away from the “traditional”

Duncan says that the popular view of carefree students who enjoy the freedom of student life as they ease into adulthood is no longer true. As more students pursue post-school education, they will move further from what we consider “traditional”, and we will continue to see more students from schools who are underprepared for post-school life (rural environments inequality).

“The profile of incoming students has changed dramatically in recent years. Today’s students come from multicultural backgrounds and are in many instances first-generation students without the ability to draw on the experience of family members. They need to juggle more responsibilities and work part-time, with many living off-campus. There is also an increase in the number of mature students registering to study, meaning they will likely have family commitments, are caregivers and financial providers for siblings, parents or elderly grandparents, while some may have children to take care of,”

Duncan says
Post lockdown world for persons with disabilities

“A large proportion of our students receive some form of financial aid support. All of the above needs to be taken into account and the DRU, as with the rest of the university, has to ensure that we understand the individual needs of students, in order to provide services which are in line with the student needs. We need to ensure that the lockdown and post lockdown world does not continue to lock down people with disabilities from participating in society”.

Duncan Yates is the Mental Health and Neurodiversity Co-ordinator at the Wits Disability Rights Unit (DRU). He has been working in the field of disability support over the past 10 years at the DRU. Duncan has a Masters in Psychology from UJ and is a Practicing Counselling Psychologist. As a person with a disability himself being legally blind Duncan has a passion and empathy in assisting students with disabilities in Higher Education to reach their full potential.

For more information, go to https://www.wits.ac.za/disability-rights-unit/