Disability is very much part of us and our everyday lives. I am sure there's a family member you know, someone in your neighbourhood, a colleague at work, a person at your place of work or attending your clinic, hospital or educational setting that has a disability. Or maybe someone who has recently had an operation and now struggles with mobility. Or someone whose functioning is affected in one way or the other and who can do with some kind of adaptation in his/her environment to make access easier.
It is very easy to just carry on with our everyday lives, functioning fully, and ignore people who might need some or the other support or means to access activities which would ordinarily be easy to do. In many ways we still need to really stop, focus and reflect on people's functioning and what assistance they might need or how the environment presents barriers to their effective functioning.
Think of a simple trip to a shop, whether using motorised or non-motorised means to get there. How many possible barriers could inhibit safe access along the way? Think about broken pavements or ones with obstructions like trees that could cause someone to fall or make it difficult for a wheelchair to navigate? What about pavements with no curb cuts which would make rolling a wheelchair across it difficult? Or areas unsheltered from the rain where you have no option to move about in a wheelchair to get to your destination?
We live in a society where people with disabilities are too easily excluded from participating in everyday activities, such as going to a shop, social gatherings, church, and gaining access to health and educational institutions. We do not realise the small ways in which we add to their exclusion, such as having areas that are inaccessible to wheelchairs. We fail to see that things like wheelchairs, guide dogs, walking sticks, the use of a Sign Language interpreter or other assistive devices are crucial supports that enable people to access their environments to enhance their functioning and participation in everyday activities.
Showing we care about people, especially those with a disability, is not difficult to do. In small ways, we can become heroes for people with disabilities. Where we plan for facilities, for transportation, for reading material and for living and learning places, we must always factor in how we will ensure inclusivity of all. Sometimes we need to make small adjustments to enable participation. Where we can do this, we must. Where there is a will there is a way. It is not okay to not allow participation because of an issue of access ̶ most times we can make a way.
On Casual Day (7 September), we have a perfect opportunity to show how we have helped or can help to make the daily functioning of people with disabilities better. This year's theme “Be an everyday hero with people with disabilities", encourages each of us to search for the hero within, to reflect on how we engage with disability matters. When we reflect and engage, we become our own hero as we start to act in ways that can make a difference to the lives of others around us.
By putting the spotlight on disability on Casual Day and indeed the entire September, we also pause, reflect, and listen to how we are not being inclusionary and engage with people that are facing functional limitations so that we can enable inclusion and greater participation in society.
Working within a higher education environment, I have become keenly aware of the struggles people with disabilities face, especially regarding access and inclusion.
At Stellenbosch University (SU), we have decided to dedicate our attention in September to Disability and Access. We have also reworked our disability policy, now called the Disability Access Policy, in an effort to address the challenges. The new policy, in place since 1 April 2018, has a campus-wide lens that focuses on students, staff and visitors to the university's different campuses and how we can make them more inclusive from a disability perspective. We recognise that disability is not only about students with disability on our campuses, but also about staff and visitors. We are re-looking at how we care at our institution and revamping and planning for better access, with a special focus on people with disabilities.
When we place a spotlight on our offices and lecture rooms, our residences and other venues, we care about how accessible these are to our staff, our students and visitors. While it will take time to make our campuses fully accessible, we have already done much in creating accessible environments such as installing and upgrading lifts in various buildings, putting in place induction loop systems in the new venues, assisting students with bursaries to acquire the needed assistive technologies to access the educational environment and continuing to make our living environments more accessible. : Our curricular and non-curricular spaces are important areas to review our practices.
The steps that we have taken show that sometimes we need to make small adjustments to enable access, inclusion and participation. Where we can do this, we must. Where there is a will there is a way. And, most times we can make a way. I believe universities, organisations, companies and society as a whole have what it takes to make life a little bit easier for people with disabilities.
By making the world a better place for them, we act heroically and we help them to be their own heroes.
On Casual Day and beyond, we should be heroes where we live, learn, socialise and worship. We should make a difference. Just by sharing a more inclusive view or correcting someone with a biased view about disability, we will already be heroes.
*Dr Marcia Lyner-Cleophas is Head of the Disability Unit at Stellenbosch University.