Enabling students with disabilities to reach their full potential

It is estimated that 10% of the global population live with disabilities. While their able-bodied peers enjoy access to quality education and employment opportunities, people with disabilities receive less support and are often excluded from schooling, employment and broader society.

Little has been achieved in the employment of persons with disabilities since the inception of the Employment Equity legislation in 1998. According to data from the 2016 Commission for Employment Equity report, people with disabilities hold less than 1% of jobs in South Africa and are hired mainly at the lowest levels of organisations to do menial tasks.

People with disabilities both within and outside of the workplace face discrimination associated with their disability. The exclusion of the Israeli minister of energy from the inaugural day of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, is just one recent incident that highlights how far away we are as a society from achieving inclusivity on a global scale.

If a high-level global event like the COP26 isn’t inclusive of people with disabilities, what hope exists for young people with disabilities who are on the cusp of their schooling and career journeys?

Nosiphiwo Delubom, Deputy Director & Head of Universal Accessibility & Disability Services at Nelson Mandela University, explains that change needs to happen in the foundation phase at school: “The reality is that our education institutions are not conducive to students with physical and learning disabilities. A lack of access to infrastructure and resources hinders learners with physical disabilities, while students with learning disabilities like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)* are either overlooked or aren’t properly addressed during the foundation or secondary phase.’’

Although there is a policy on screening, identification, assessment and support developed to respond to the needs of learners in basic education, Delubom is of the view that the Department of Basic Education does little to ensure that learners with invisible disabilities are identified, assessed and supported. “It is concerning that learners who show signs of learning disabilities, aren’t being identified in primary and high school, especially those in townships and rural areas,” says Delubom. “Minimal support is given to these learners. They are often pushed through to the next grade, then struggle to deal with challenges and reach their goals in the transition to tertiary education,” she says.

Poor policy implementation is partly to blame. Stigmatisation also plays a significant role: “Often, there is denial by both parents and learners in fear of being stigmatised. Learners have to contend with negative stereotypes, like being labelled as ‘slow learners’, which are held by others and even themselves,” says Delubom.

Accommodating students with disabilities

A student with a learning disability such as ADHD will likely face challenges in many aspects of the tertiary academic experience. Since learning in this environment requires lengthy periods of concentration, time management and organisation – both in the lecture room and beyond – it can pose significant challenges for them.

However, students with ADHD and other learning disabilities can be successful in tertiary education environments when supported by lecturers and programmes that accommodate these learners.

Education institutions need to position learners with disabilities at the centre and create conducive learning environments. Delubom offers these three recommendations for a more inclusive education environment:

  • Students with disabilities must be prepared before the commencement of programmes and classes, so that they can be orientated on how to use technological devices to avoid increased anxiety
  • Infrastructure should be more accessible, and institutions should make use of adaptive technology that is user-friendly to all students
  • Teachers and lecturers must be trained to identify learners with learning disabilities and be ready to accommodate all students

How to support students with disabilities

Many students who enrol at tertiary institutions may not be aware that they have a learning disability. Those who are aware of their disability, don’t necessarily like to talk about it.

According to Delubom, awareness is key and learners must be encouraged to communicate with teachers, student advisors and lecturers. “It is critical that the collective voice of students with disabilities is heard. When students speak up, suitable support can be provided to empower them to help them succeed,” says Delubom. This also confirms the need to strengthen coaching and mentoring programmes, not only to nudge students to speak up, but to also assist them on their path to success.

Nelson Mandela University’s Universal Accessibility and Disability Services (UADS) aims to provide appropriate support services to empower students with disabilities on campus through assistive technology, training and development. This encourages independence and active participation in academic and co-curricular activities. 

UADS aims to assist students and staff with disabilities by:

  • Establishing reasonable accommodations and support systems
  • Increasing awareness about and advocating for persons with disabilities
  • Increasing awareness of the abilities of persons with disabilities amongst staff and students, thus providing persons with disability with an equal opportunity to participate fully in all aspects of student/staff life at Mandela Uni

“Our goal is to produce students who can stand on their own in the workplace and eliminate the perception that students with disabilities have limited capacity,” says Delubom.

*Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder found in both children and adults. Although there is no consensus amongst available research literature as to the underlying cause of the disorder, one of the most predominant perspectives suggests that ADHD is a disorder of the executive functions of the brain, which regulate intentional, goal-directed, problem-solving action.