Disabled students roll with the punches

Disabled students at Wits still struggle on campus despite plans to make their lives easier.

Several departments at Wits are working to improve the experiences and learning conditions of disabled students but a more widespread approach is needed across the university.

Duncan Yates, psychologist and learning disabilities coordinator at the Wits Disability Unit (WDU) said that there needs to be more changes made to accommodate all disabled students. He added that there have been some improvements.

“In the library we have what is called IPals … these are cameras that take pictures of texts [from books] and recites the text for visually impaired students, so we’ve had to look at alternative formats for disabled students,” he said.

Yates said an organisation called the Disability Interest Group gets together to discuss the struggles of disabled people and look for solutions.

One of the initiatives which will be implemented is Access Maps. Yates explained that these are online maps where disabled students can find different, accessible routes to entrances, parking, and classes on the different campuses.

Responsibility lies with the whole university

“Another challenge at Wits is that the buildings are old and when they were built they didn’t make provisions for disabled students, so it’s hard to make the necessary adjustments,” he said.

Anlia Pretorius, head of the Wits Disability Unit, said: “The DU cannot be everywhere all the time, so the responsibility lies with the whole university.”

MAKING IT THROUGH: Second-year BCom PPE, Brian Sibanda, a paraplegic, makes his way to class. Photo: Luke Matthews

MAKING IT THROUGH: Second-year BCom PPE, Brian Sibanda, a paraplegic, makes his way to class.
Photo: Luke Matthews

Pretorius said she knew of a blind student who once bumped into a pillar which had been placed in the middle of walk-way.

“She obviously didn’t know that it was put there so she walked into it and broke her tooth … We need to work together to create solutions and create more awareness about the different disabilities,” said Pretorius.

Wits Vuvuzela spoke to a student, who asked not to be named, who has a learning disability. Learning disabilities are often called the ‘silent disability’ as they cannot be physically seen by others.

“I didn’t understand why I was slow and why I struggled to keep up in class. After my June results I went to look for help, because I was scared I would fail. I received therapy and I was taught different learning styles like learning with shapes and colours like in pre-school,” the student said.

“The DU helped me be patient with myself and not be ashamed of my condition because people don’t understand it and judge you.”

Pretorius said there has been a good response from lecturers and students who want to learn to work with disabled students.

“It’s important for the Wits community to understand because these students don’t want to be labelled,” she said.

Accessibility and Advocacy office at Wits

Brian Sibanda, 2nd year BCom PPE, told Wits Vuvuzela that being in a wheelchair was a “challenge” at Wits.

“The challenge is that when you’re in a wheelchair you always have to take the long way. Another one is that when you’re new you don’t know your way around and most structures don’t accommodate the disabled.”

Yates said disabilities are sidelined and there needs to be universal designing of structures and facilities to accommodate everyone.

The university is in the process of staffing an accessibility and advocacy office. The office will look at what is needed to benefit the disabled throughout the university.

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