Stellenbosch University's (SU) declaration to prioritise disability inclusion for 2020 came full circle with the celebration of the International Day for Persons with Disabilities on Wednesday (3 December 2020).
The International Day for People with Disabilities is observed annually on 3 December to promote the full and equal participation of persons with disability in society and the economy.
The virtual event to celebrate the day, was hosted by AfriNEAD − a pan-African network founded by the Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies at SU to ensure that networking and research contribute to a better quality of life for people with disabilities − and the City of Cape Town.
This year's event, themed “Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 world", included a performance by dance group Unmute, a play by persons of disability and music interludes by Michelle Botha and Lois Strachan.
In her welcoming speech, AfriNEAD chairperson and director of SU's Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies Prof Gubela Mji called for persons of disability to take the lead in disability research evidence.
“Persons with disability need to move away from the fact that they are always being researched. There needs to come a time where they become the leaders within research evidence and form partnerships in research evidence," said Mji.
She said in order for this to happen academic institutions need to transform to include students with disabilities so that they can be capacitated with the research skills to play a leadership role in driving disability research evidence.
SU's Rector and Vice-chancellor, Prof Wim de Villiers, said in his address that the university is committed to the promotion of full and equal participation of persons with disabilities and to take action for their inclusion in all aspects of society and development.
“That is why, on this day last year, I announced that 2020 would be the Year of Persons with Disabilities at Stellenbosch University. As it happened, COVID-19 would hit the world less than a month after this announcement, throwing our plans into disarray. But I am happy to report that our staff and students responded to the crisis with resilience and determination, rallying to not only save the academic year but also to keep our strategic goals on track.
“We already started on this journey in the 1970s, and developed through the years until we established a fully-fledged, dedicated disability unit in 2007. We now take in more than 400 students a year who disclose a disability – and many more who come forward later for help with assistive technologies, psychosocial support, academic mentoring, information on financial assistance, opportunities for disability sports, and so on."
According to De Villiers many of their students with disabilities who have graduated through the years have taken up leading positions in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, making meaningful contributions to society.
He said the theme of the International Day, which is focused on the post COVID-19 era and sounds the call to 'build back better', is spot on.
“The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc globally, but at the same time, it has given us the chance to rethink how we do things, to replan, redesign and ultimately rebuild society … better than before.
“Interestingly enough, most of our students with disabilities managed to continue their studies online, despite the challenges. In fact, in many respects they showed us the way, having long been accustomed to working online and using assistive technologies for their education.
“So, here we have a window of opportunity even as we continue to battle the pandemic. We can counter rising feelings of fatigue and hopelessness with a goal that energises us – the vision of a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 world. Let that vision stir our blood to create greater awareness of disability issues, put the necessary policies and processes in place, provide more information and training, better support students and staff with disabilities, and find the additional resources needed to do all of these things."
Premier of the Western Cape Alan Winde said in his address that people with disabilities are too often overlooked and hidden away instead of being a part of society.
“Our enabling environment needs to have a lot more focus. Though our social development and health departments put funding into programmes for especially children with disabilities, I have to admit that we still have a lot of work to do. It is a journey and we all have to go on that journey to create a better environment for people of disabilities," he said.