Eliminating both physical and attitudinal barriers for students with disabilities

Duncan Yates is the Mental Health and Neurodiversity Co-ordinator at the Wits Disability Rights Unit (DRU) where he has been working in the field of disability support over the past 10 years.

He has a Masters in Psychology from the University of Johannesburg and is also 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.

Disability Connect chatted to Duncan about the Wits Disability Rights Unit and the unique challenges faced by students with disabilities in 2020
  • How many students at Wits have disabilities?

Wits has over 1200 students who have identified themselves as having a disability. There are probably also many more students who have chosen not to disclose their disability. Wits currently has almost 40 000 students.

We are seeing a growth in the disclosure of disability status, with a steep increase of mental health disorders. This is in line with international reporting. While the reasons why more students are willing to disclose mental health disorders is not clear, it could be due to decreased stigma about mental illness as well as the fact that the young adult age group may be where one first recognises some of the signs and symptoms of mental illness.

  • In what ways does Wits create an accessible and welcoming environment for all students with disabilities?

As a University, we are committed to working towards the goal of creating an accessible and welcoming environment for all students with disabilities. The University endeavours to make the learning environment a rich and rewarding one and continually strives to improve all aspects of accessibility – physically, technologically and socially.

The Disability Rights Unit (DRU) moved to a new location in Solomon Mahlangu House a few years ago and we were fortunate to be able to design a space that is state of the art in terms of universal design in order to offer our students an exceptional learning environment. 

To provide services, the DRU needs to work in collaboration with various sectors at Wits and both academic and support departments. It is encouraging to note that Wits is taking seriously the provision of services to our students with disabilities.

  • What is the role of The Disability Rights Unit (DRU)?

The Wits DRU is well established in supporting students with various disabilities, and provides services with individualised accommodations. Each year, the new intake of DRU students bring varying disabilities, with unique needs and challenges to overcome.

The DRU supports students and staff who have documented physical disabilities, specific learning disabilities, psychiatric and/or psychological illness or chronic medical conditions, based on professional medical reports. We aim to establish an accessible learning environment by eliminating both physical and attitudinal barriers.

  • What additional role does this unit play now with the COVID-19 pandemic?

The staff from the DRU have been working with our students with disabilities to assist in the transition to online learning during the pandemic.  We have had to make sure students are aware of the alternative assistive technology available as our DRU labs have been closed. For students requiring additional support such as counselling we have used online platforms to offer support. The DRU has been in contact with all students registered at the DRU via email. Wits has also assisted students who required new laptops as well as providing free data in order to continue with their studies. We have also motivated for some students with disabilities to return to Campus Residences early due to their disability and further support required.

  • How does WITS and other institutions of higher learning help students with disabilities to continue their studies amidst the pandemic?

Some of the major support includes assistive technology, counselling, and extending the period students can apply for concessions such as extra time.

Institutes of Higher learning in South Africa have also been collaborating together to share best practice regarding disability support during the pandemic. Higher and Further Education Disabilities Association (HEDSA) has been facilitating these discussions through its online communication platform.

  • As tertiary institutions reopen, what additional measures are in place for students with disabilities who may be at a higher risk?

Tertiary institutions are slowly re-opening as currently 33% of students can return to Residences.

In the ‘new normal’ there will have to be clear guidelines set out for all staff and students with regards to general well-being and preventing the spread of the virus. Overcoming the pandemic will have to take a community approach including all members of society.  There is mounting uncertainty about what the next academic year will hold given that the imperative of social distancing will reshape every aspect of academic life. The DRU will continue supporting students through these challenging times.

Go to https://www.wits.ac.za/disability-rights-unit/ for more information.




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