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03 September 2020 | Story Mosa Moerane and Martie Miranda
Martie and Mosa
Martie Miranda and Mosa Moerane

Opinion article written by Mosa Moerane and Martie Miranda, Center for Universal Access and Disability Support (CUADS) within the Division of Student Affairs

The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought into focus the various socio-economic challenges that plague societies the world over, and higher education institutions have not been spared the rapid landscape changes necessary to survive. As a direct result of the pandemic, attention to long-standing issues within the higher education environment, such as glaring financial challenges that have been highlighted repeatedly, the lack of personal learning equipment, unconducive learning environments, and antiquated hierarchical student-lecturer relationships, can no longer be deferred. For several years, students had to contend with these and other challenges without sufficient support and structural adjustment. The higher education environment also plays an integral role in student success, since students are faced with multiple cognitive and emotional demands that need to be navigated. Students with disabilities, however, are often confronted with not only these environmental challenges, but with attitudinal barriers as well. The learning experience of students with disabilities is greatly influenced by negative views and attitudes; therefore, they need to develop reparatory strategies to compensate for and balance the effects of their shortfalls in order to achieve success.

Normally, support is required for individual needs, taking into account the specific and distinctive needs of each student related to their disability. The barriers experienced in their physical, social, emotional, administrative, and academic environment are additionally disabling, although the social model of disability indicates that a disabling world encompasses inaccessible physical environments, inaccessible information, barriers to communication, prejudices, and discrimination – which is not conducive to the integration of students with disabilities. An inaccessible physical environment includes buildings, transport, and poor design that do not take the needs of people with disabilities into account. Inaccessible information refers to difficult language use, written text, and inaccessible websites or e-learning facilities. Barriers to communication involves the unavailability of Sign Language interpreters and accessible equipment, and the assumption that everyone communicates in the same way. And lastly, prejudices and discrimination consist of experiences of invalidating attitudes, stereotyping, assumptions, and inflexible or unfair systems in organisations. Students with disabilities have been navigating all of the aforementioned and were denied certain adaptations and ways of learning.

The role of disability units within higher education institutions therefore needs to address the environments mentioned above in order to assist in reducing the need for special accommodation, as well as shifting perceptions to encourage all students to reveal their skills and talents, and to learn at an optimal yet individual pace. Disability units are therefore the prime negotiator between academic staff and students to assist with removing environmental and attitudinal barriers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown academic staff and our diverse range of students with varying abilities into an online space without specifically thinking of students with disabilities as being part of this diversity. There was understandably much concern around how students will cope with the new way of teaching, especially pertaining to the availability of resources and accessibility to technology. Academic staff had to start thinking about all students – without specifically thinking about students with disabilities – and the type of teaching, learning, and assessment that would work best for all students. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to not only relook our curriculum as well as its design and outcomes, but also to focus on what needs to be learned and the various ways in which to do so. It is acknowledged that planned activities are important learning experiences. However, students also possess a wealth of previous experiences; these experiences are valuable and need to be brought into the learning process as well. Learning experiences for students with disabilities are both individual and social, while unique experiences help to develop an understanding of their personal restrictions in the social environment and the obstacles that hamper them in achieving their goals. During this time, the Center for Universal Access and Disability Support (CUADS) explored the ways in which academic staff started reducing barriers for students – including students with disabilities – by implementing accessible and equitable curricula and inclusive instructional design. Emphasis was placed on flexibility in student engagement, representation of content, and learner action and expression. This subsequently led the way to designing and delivering instructions that meet the needs of students in varying contexts. In addition, the three principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) have been implemented to assist the promotion of equity and flexibility for a diverse group of students. These three principles include multiple ways of representing information in different formats; allowing different ways for students to engage with learning material; and multiple means of action and expression to demonstrate knowledge. Incorporating such principles in the design of all course and assessment practices are valuable to all students, given their natural diversity (without necessarily focusing on students with disabilities). During the pandemic, everybody has been challenged and possibly rendered ‘disabled’ in the online space. Therefore, being truly inclusive means that we acknowledge that we cannot treat all students in the same way when there is so much diversity within this stakeholder group.

Academic staff also had to start gauging their students’ performance and allow interaction without necessarily contacting the disability unit for guidance. Similarly, students with disabilities had to personally interact with their lecturers without the involvement of the disability unit – which gave these students the capacity to make choices and decisions without having to necessarily deal with attitudinal barriers as a result of their disability. Since the disability unit was now often bypassed in the adaptation phase during COVID-19, CUADS distributed a tip sheet among faculties to assist in incorporating universal design principles in online teaching and learning material. In this way, CUADS could support teaching staff in creating and sustaining universal accessibility.

COVID-19 necessitated a timely response to challenges or had to face the collapse of the academic year. One of the most pivotal interventions was the emphasis on the need to ensure that teaching and learning continued through as many platforms as possible. This required innovation, creativity, and a positive attitude from both academic and support staff in order to rise to the occasion. Subsequently, this turnaround created a significant opportunity to assess what it means for accessibility moving forward. Now that we know what is possible, how can we capitalise on the strategies employed during this crisis to ensure that students from their plural walks of life continue to benefit from the opportunities presented during the pandemic? What opportunities exist – particularly for students with disabilities – to harness the flexibility for submitting assessments, presenting lectures, and communication beyond this moment?

In addition to these questions as they relate to students’ academic journey, questions also came to the fore regarding co-curricular programmes that students with disabilities (should) have the opportunity to participate in. Much of the out-of-classroom lessons takes place through various lectures, critical conversations, and other forms of dialogues instituted by different faculties and departments. To this end, CUADS has developed the Universal Access Checklist to help organisers of such events to ensure maximum universal access. The checklist has been developed in such a way that it can be migrated to online platforms as well. To encourage the use of this document, CUADS also provides training on the Universal Access Checklist.

Embedding universal access on an institutional level, an Integrated Transformation Plan – a Policy on Universal Access and Disability Support for Students with Disabilities – will serve before Rectorate. Recognising the talents, abilities, and potential of students with disabilities, the University of the Free State is committed to creating an enabling environment where fully equitable participation and progression become a reality for all its students. The policy has been developed through an extensive consultation process as required for all policies. Its implementation invites the commitment and attitudinal shift to achieve the institutional impact

that is necessary to move beyond the view of universal access as the exclusive responsibility of one department, but rather as the university’s collective aspiration.

Mosa Moerane
Holds BA Management and LLB degrees from the University of the Free State, currently pursuing an LLM (Legal Philosophy and Constitutional Law). Keen interest in decoloniality (and decolonisation), accessibility, and social justice within and outside of higher education.

Martie Miranda
Started at the University of the Free State in 2009 as South African Sign Language Interpreter, became the Head of CUADS in 2015, and currently serves as the Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education Disability Services Association (HEDSA), focusing on two important projects – advocacy and setting up services to support students with disabilities, and sharing best practices to assist in improving services provided to students with disabilities.

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