Stellenbosch University (SU) has declared that 2020 will be the year to drive transformation with a specific focus on disability inclusion.
In celebration of the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, SU's Rector and Vice-chancellor, Prof Wim de Villiers, announced today (3 December 2019) that 2020 will be the University's Year for Persons with Disability. SU's aspirations link up with the international day's theme of “full participation and equality". Prof De Villiers also promised his involvement, where possible, in some of the proposed activities for 2020.
This declaration flows from SU's commitment to inclusivity and equality for every person with academic merits to be able to fully participate on equal grounds in the academic journey at the University. The University and its departments, divisions and units will throughout the year engage in seminars, papers, general information and presentations. At these activities, the successes will be highlighted and there will be a focus on the work that still needs to be done to reach full participation and equality.
The Year for Persons with Disability will culminate in the sixth African Network for Evidence-to- Action in Disability (AfriNEAD) conference, a prestigious international network that will be hosted by SU from the 30 November to 3 December next year.
AfriNEAD is a regional disability research network initiated in SU's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences' Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies (CDRS). It is chaired by Prof Gubela Mji, who is also the head of the CDRS. AfriNEAD was founded in Cape Town in November 2007 as a research network of various disability advocacy groups, local and international academics and researchers, health service providers and representatives from various government departments. AfriNEAD's aim is to facilitate evidence-to-action in the disability field so as to impact real change in the quality of life of people with disabilities in Africa.
The 2020 AfriNEAD Conference entitled “Disability unplugged – Beyond Conventions and Charters: What really matters to persons with disabilities in Africa" has afforded a platform to the University to present an institutional commitment and an aspiration in advancing the debate of an inclusive university community. “It is with this endeavour that Stellenbosch University declares 2020 as a disability year here at SU, as we advance our commitment to disability inclusion on our campuses and promotes inclusivity," says Mji.
"At the same time, continuous work is done by SU's Disability Unit (DU) to not only broaden the accessibility of physical spaces and information but also to make people more aware of the rights of persons with disabilities, is a work in progress," says Dr Marcia Lyner-Cleophas, Head: DU.
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.
Today the University has an approved Disability Access Policy (2018) applicable to all people on campus, including visitors. “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 says.
Among the general student population on campus, the disclosed mental health conditions show an increase from 53 mental health disorders in 2018 to 73 mental health disorders in 2019. In general, the number of students who disclose disabilities and who seek support is increasing rapidly, says Lyner-Cleophas. These figures, however, do not reflect the actual numbers of students seeking support for psycho-social conditions.
“Statistics have shown that more and more students feel free to open up about their need for support with mental health conditions. The reality is also that most disabilities are not visible, such as students with specific learning disabilities, mental health and other health conditions.
“Although the DU has come a long way in tackling the challenges to make the campus more accessible, there remains much work to be done," says Lyner-Cleophas.
“Raising awareness and engagement with universal access, universal design and 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," says Mji.
“There are departments, centres and special units within our University that have assisted SU in improving its response towards the inclusion of students and staff with disabilities. After a marathon of 11 years of tabling regional conferences, AfriNEAD is coming back home to Stellenbosch University. AfriNEAD is also a research network that advances the debate on realising the rights of persons with disabilities in Africa," says Mji.
SU's Disability Access Policy, already implemented in April 2018, also guides the international trend of increasing universal access across all higher education institutions, said Lyner-Cleophas.
Besides the SU policy, other structures such as the 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 South African National Development Plan 2030 also provide the impetus to envision and enact a prosperous and better life for all. A strong focus is placed on disability-inclusive environments in all aspects of life, including physical inclusion in all spaces, participation in education, in matters related to health and the economy.
According to Lyner-Cleophas, the Unit is still confronted with new challenges regarding the inclusion of students and staff with disabilities. The accessibility of buildings, campus areas and academic and general campus information via electronic format, Braille or screen readers are on their to-do list. In reality, this has to be on every person's to-do list, on campus. Inclusion is about everybody, not only the DU, says Lyner-Cleophas.
Year on year more students with disabilities register at SU. DU provides support services specific to the individual needs of each student. Lyner-Cleophas says it is important that they are informed about students' individual circumstances in order to respond appropriately.
The first point of disability disclosure is on application to the University, which means that the registration of disabilities is not done directly through the DU. Students register like all other at SU, and then decide if they need further support and engage with us further as partners to their successful study.
“We do not force students to disclose their disability and it is thus up to the student to engage with the Unit. However, we are integral to looking at relevant support as might be required from specific students with disabilities who come to us directly, via campus departments or via the Centre for Student Counselling and Development in Student Affairs," says Lyner-Cleophas.
Among the approximate 32 000 students at SU, are approximately 423 students with disabilities who disclosed their disabilities on application to SU. When examining disclosed disabilities received from the Admissions Office, it is found that 1,32% of students with disclosed disabilities are on campus. When examining the total number of students actually coming for support, SU has 2,66% receiving support (852 of the approximate 32 000 SU student population). These numbers are low compared to international figures, which indicate about 10%–15% and more people have disabilities, particularly in areas of low to mixed resources and access. We commit to striving towards increased inclusion and participation of students and staff at SU," says Lyner-Cleophas.