Disability Awareness Month: Annually, South Africa commemorates National Disability Rights Awareness Month between 3 November and 3 December. Disability Awareness Month creates an opportunity for people with disabilities to raise awareness on the barriers they face daily and how society can improve those barriers. This year, the Stellenbosch University (SU) Disability Unit celebrates 15 years of support and inclusivity. To mark this, the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division spoke to students and staff who have been supported by the Disability Unit. Read below:
Stellenbosch University (SU) has been part of Luigia Nicholas's life for close to a decade. She first joined the University back in 2014 as a BCom student and now works for the Disability Unit as its marketing and training coordinator.
During her time on campus, Luigia – who is partially sighted – has witnessed many changes to address the needs of students with disabilities. “When I started, there weren't as many accessible residences," she recalls. “There was also no tactile paving across the whole campus, no Braille signage, and not all lifts had evacuation chairs." Back then, training opportunities for academic staff on the inclusion of students with disabilities were few and far between, and sensitisation to disability in general was largely lacking.
It was against this background that the Disability Unit provided her with assistance. “They put me in a residence close to campus so that it was safe for me to walk to my classes on a daily basis," Luigia says. “They also supported me with assistive technology to help me get through my studies."
Today, however, SU is a very different place, she says. “It has really improved a lot and is more inclusive of those with disabilities, especially in the newer buildings. And the University now offers the Siyakula staff training programme as well as student training.
“I don't think the University will ever reach a point where it will be completely accessible or inclusive of every type of disability because everyone's needs are different," Luigia adds. “But I do think there is a move in the right direction. There are conversations; there is training."
Staunch advocate for disability issues
As a student leader, she actively participated in helping to bring about some of these changes. “I was closely involved in voicing what the needs were and what needed to change," says Luigia, who is now studying towards a Postgraduate Diploma in Disability and Rehabilitation Studies. “My goal is to try and make the University even more inclusive."
She is passionate about working in the field of disabilities, so when she joined the staff of the Disability Unit in July, it felt like the logical next step. “It was an easy transition. I work in an environment already sensitised to my needs," she says. “When I started, they put measures in place to accommodate me with regard to software and to make sure there's enough space for my guide dog."
Greater inclusivity for generations to come
Luigia is driven by her personal background. “The type of disability I have is genetic, so I may have children or grandchildren with the same condition," she explains. “This is why I believe I have a responsibility to try to make the world a bit more inclusive so that they don't have to deal with the same struggles I have to deal with.
“So, if I have an opportunity to be a voice for disability inclusion, I should use it. While many people go through the same issues, perhaps they don't have the strength or capacity to voice their opinions. Therefore, I feel I have a duty to be an advocate and speak for those who can't."
Luigia's other long-term goal is to motivate young children to enrol at university. “At some schools – especially special-needs schools – many children are discouraged from going to university because people think it's not inclusive. If I can motivate learners to enter university, that's what I would like to do."