19 March 2021 | Story Mosa Moerane
Mosa Moerane
Mosa Moerane from the UFS Liaison, Advocacy and Awareness Officer at CUADS

by Mosa Moerane, Liaison, Advocacy and Awareness Officer at CUADS

Annually, the month of March marks Human Rights Month in South Africa. This month also commemorates the Sharpeville massacre that took place on 21 March 1960, where police opened fire on a group of protesters who sought the banning of the repressive pass laws of that era. Sixty-nine people were killed. We honour their sacrifice by, firstly, observing Human Rights Month and, secondly, persistently seeking to ensure that we dismantle systems that uphold and maintain the status quo so that nobody has to protest in order to have their voices and needs heard and addressed. We acknowledge that we are still some distance from this ideal.

It is against this background that the article seeks to invite some thinking around disability rights and disability justice within higher education. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), people with disabilities make up 15% of the world population. Disability transcends gender, class, race, and origin. However, society appears to be constructed to negate this fact.

South Africa is party to international laws and agreements such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) of 2006, which South Africa ratified in 2007. This means that the country accepts all the legal obligations imposed by this instrument. The CRPD seeks to promote, protect, and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by persons with disabilities. According to the CRPD, persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments, which, in interaction with various barriers, may obstruct their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis. This is a clear recognition that persons with disabilities are equal and valuable members of society and should be recognised in all aspects of life. There is no single definition of disability that has achieved international consensus, since the concept of disability is evolving. The concept evolved from the initial charity or welfare approach that viewed persons with disabilities as objects of pity who required help, to the medical approach that sought to treat the disability in isolation, to the current social and human rights approach.

Universal Access in Higher Education
Universal access addresses, among others, structural barriers such as accessibility to facilities and infrastructure, the lack of support services or technology, the lack of availability of information in accessible formats, and the lack of reasonable accommodation in schools and workplaces. To this end, it is imperative that we align ourselves with the values of universal accessibility and universal design. Universal access is when the focus of attention is shifted from the individual with the disability to the environment in which they live. In this instance, universal access demands that the environment and society be more adaptable and flexible. The universal access approach conceptualises a disability as an experience where the environment in which a person functions or interacts is inaccessible, and may include social, attitudinal, learning, administrative, and physical barriers for a student. Therefore, while universal access does benefit people with disabilities, other demographics of people enjoy the advantages brought about by this approach.

Let us use two examples to illustrate this: Firstly, ramps are indeed useful for wheelchair users and people who use canes/crutches to gain entry to buildings. However, it is also useful for students and professionals who may regularly cart around large volumes of documents, files, and/or books – hello Accounting students! The second example is one highlighted by the current COVID-19 pandemic: creating opportunities for multiple methods of submitting assessments. In responding to the pressures and threat that COVID-19 posed for the academic year, it quickly became obvious that the stringent methods of assessment that we were accustomed to would simply not suffice, as students grappled with varying degrees of access to equipment and infrastructure in order to make these submissions. Therefore, more academic staff embraced and opened opportunities for submissions through alternative platforms that require significantly less data and is therefore less expensive. While this was helpful to students who faced unprecedented pressure due to lack of access to university computer labs, it also expanded the opportunities for more diverse student-teacher engagement beyond the often-inaccessible methods previously available.

Universally Accessible Communication
With the advent of COVID-19, various institutions have embarked on aggressive communication campaigns to ensure that they convey their messages as clearly and to as wide an audience as possible. However, unfortunately these were not always successful, as they often failed to prioritise people with disabilities by not ensuring that the methods of communication were accessible to all. For example, in order to simplify the message of COVID-19 transmission, a lot of organisations developed animation videos. However, these videos would either have audio not accompanied by closed captions/subtitles, which resulted in deaf, hard-of-hearing, and deafened members of our communities not being able to access the message. Alternatively, the video would only have subtitles, thereby excluding blind and partially sighted people.

This finally brings us to the crux of this article: to encourage all of us to treat universal access as the primary approach of communication in order to avoid the exclusion of significant sections of society. This approach further ensures that the constitutionally mandated right of access to information is upheld for all people. Access to information is vital to ensure maximum participation and opportunities for success, particularly for those who have previously been denied their human rights – such as persons with disabilities, through ostracism, exclusion, and discrimination.

In keeping with the UFS Language Policy, our university communication is conveyed in English. However, statistically speaking, the majority of the university staff and students indicate English as their second and sometimes even third language. To this end, a universally accessible strategy would improve the quality of communication and encourage wider engagement if it employed multiple methods of conveyance, for example, audio, closed captions, and screen-reading software, and (where material is printed for distribution) different formats should be available, such as electronic text, Braille or enlarged font. The reason for this is that we all have different styles of learning and understanding; creating opportunities to cater for this variety serves to accomplish – instead of deterring – the ideal that the Integrated Transformation Plan (ITP) articulates as “a transformed university which strives for social justice in everything it does.”

To this end, the Centre for Universal Access and Disability Support (CUADS) at the University of the Free State has developed the Universal Access Checklist in an effort to equip and support the university community, as it continuously strives to create and cultivate a demonstrably inclusive culture. The Universal Access Checklist is a useful resource for planning a variety of in-person and virtual events and situations. It seeks to express, in a simple manner, the basic elements to achieve accessibility in our various endeavours – whether in the planning of events, communicating vital information, or creating resources. The Universal Access Checklist can therefore be used in a variety of situations. CUADS is also available to provide training and support on this document to faculties, divisions, and departments seeking it. Requests and enquiries can be sent to MoeraneMM@ufs.ac.za

CUADS contact information
Email: cuads@ufs.ac.za
Bloemfontein Campus: MirandaMH@ufs.ac.za / +27 51 401 3713
Qwaqwa Campus: ThuloTB@ufs.ac.za / +27 58 718 5189
South Campus: MotaungEG@ufs.ac.za / +27 51 505 1355
Facebook: Centre for Universal Access and Disability Support (CUADS)

CUADS offers academic support to students and staff with disabilities through services such as:

Disability Support Programme, which entails the provision of specialist and a holistic coordinated approach in student support, while also availing information for data collection and reporting purposes.  The aim of the programme is to create enabling environments that empower students with disabilities to participate equally.  
• Accessible Transport Programme, which includes the provision of accessible transport to students with disabilities between the Bloemfontein and South Campuses.
• Liaison, Awareness and Advocacy Programme for the development of awareness and advocacy for persons with disabilities across all three campuses. Partnerships here are the Centre for Teaching and Learning, Student Life, and Communities.
• Staff with Disabilities Programme to advance optimal support for staff members with disabilities, together with Human Resources.
• Staff Development and Training Programme in partnership with Human Resources, to develop an institutional knowledge-based culture of mindfulness regarding the diverse student population of the UFS.
• Accessibility Programme to ensure access to all buildings and facilities for all users according to the principles of Universal Access and Universal Design, together with University Grounds and Estates.
• Accessible Study Material Production Programme for the provision of academic support through the coordination and production of accessible learning material and lectures with academic departments and lecturers.
• Communication Access Programme for the provision of academic support through the facilitation and coordination of communication access together with Interpreter Services.
• Alternative Assessment Programme by facilitating and coordinating alternative assessment options together with the Examination Division and Student Development and Counselling.
• Student Academic Support Programme to move away from all academic support services to persons with disabilities predominantly being the responsibility of CUADS in collaboration with the Centre for Teaching and Learning – WriteSite, A_Step Programme.

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