*Artilce by Prof Gubela Mji, who heads the Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University.
Celebrated annually on 3 December, the International Day for Persons with Disabilities aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilise support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. The Day also helps us to refocus our attention on the challenges that people with disabilities face worldwide. The theme for 2022, 'Transformative solutions for inclusive development: The role of innovation in fuelling an accessible and equitable world' is, therefore, fitting. In our transforming world, we need to rethink our place in it, our stereotypes, blind spots, and the ways that we continue to exclude people with disabilities.
Innovative solutions to bring about equitable livelihoods and experiences can help to include people with disabilities in all spheres of society. At Stellenbosch University (SU), we recognise the need for continuous reflection about how we could create innovations that will contribute to an inclusive, accessible and equitable world.
An example of such a reflection, is SU's 2020 declaration to drive transformation with a specific focus on disability inclusion. This informs how we chart our way forward. For instance, we are currently reviewing some of our practices as well as the Disability Access Policy approved in 2018. Several gaps were identified that need strengthening and some gains have been made towards better disability inclusion on our different campuses. In 2020, we identified the need for more information about disability and better sensitisation. We have since put in place a transcript recognised programme for students called “Lead with Disability". Additionally, we have a staff member assigned to assist with staff and student training and awareness.
“At the same time, continuous work is done by SU's Disability Unit, not only to broaden the accessibility of physical spaces and information but also to make people more aware of the rights of persons with disabilities, this is a work in progress," says Dr Marcia Lyner-Cleophas, Head of the Disability Unit. According to Lyner-Cleophas, the University has been on a positive learning curve regarding the needs of persons with disabilities with the first students with disabilities entering the University even before the 1970s. “With the Disability Access Policy we want to ensure that we cover all aspects of people's functioning in each and every department on campus, so that we can implement plans to address disability in a holistic and truly inclusive way," she adds.
Although there are visible efforts to ensure diversity and the inclusion of staff and students with disabilities on our different campuses, we are still faced with challenges. Raising awareness and engagement with universal access, universal design and as well as universal design for learning should become part of the social fabric of the University at all levels with the promotion of a culture of ethical conduct, respect and embracing diversity. This culture needs to start internally with the academic institution role modelling inclusion, democracy, equal rights, and university citizenship for all persons, including persons with disabilities
Besides the SU's Disability Access Policy, other structures such as the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa and the National Development Plan 2030 also provide the impetus to envision and enact a prosperous and better life for people with disabilities. A strong focus is placed on disability-inclusive environments in all aspects of life and in all spheres of society.
In this regard, the African Network for Evidence-to-Action in Disability (AfriNEAD) also plays an important role. Initiated in the Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies at SU in 2007, AfriNEAD is a regional disability research network that has provided the University with a platform to present an institutional commitment and an aspiration in advancing inclusivity on all its campuses. In 2023, SU will host the seventh AfriNEAD conference. This will be another opportunity for SU to confirm its commitment to help build an inclusive society for people with disabilities.