Creating an enabling environment for students with disabilities

05 November 2014 | Mammuso Makhanya | Opinion

Providing support to students with disabilities requires comprehensive and consistent engagement if it is to make a difference.

Mammuso Makhanya

The FNB Fund, together with WesBank and Rand Merchant Bank, is part of the First Rand Foundation, which serves as the vehicle through which the entities drive their corporate social investment.

Over the past few years, the Foundation has focused its efforts on providing support to the education sector, from early childhood development to primary, secondary and tertiary education. Through the various programmes undertaken within these areas, it has focused on raising awareness of students with disabilities.

The FNB Fund currently funds two disability units – one at the University of Stellenbosch and the other at the University of the Free State – and aims to roll out its support more broadly in the future. With this in mind, the FNB Fund Manager, Pearl Mphuthi, and I recently visited the disability units of four universities to learn more about their successes and challenges.

My research findings left an indelible imprint on me, professionally and personally, and continuously challenged many of my stereotypes and assumptions. One of my biggest assumptions – naïve in hindsight – was that disabilities are primarily physical. My research, however, forced me to acknowledge that they are as complex and diverse as the people who live with them.

In a recent conversation with the Deputy Minister of Social Development, the honourable Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, she emphasised the fact that the general population is largely ignorant about the realities faced by people living with disabilities. In particular, she emphasised that their needs, desires and dreams are no different from anyone else’s. And, like others, they require the necessary assistance, guidance and nurturing to make these dreams a reality.

Realising this has made me interrogate my interactions with people living with disabilities, as well as how – as human beings and as funders – we respond to their needs. What is crucial, I now see, is that we understand the full dynamics at play before we even begin to recommend solutions. This can only be achieved by consulting and involving the people concerned, as is so clearly communicated in the disability rights movement’s long-standing slogan: “Nothing about us without us.”

As a fund, we want to work towards a more inclusive, collaborative approach to disability support, from policy development through to the practical implementation of our solutions. These solutions need to be creative, making use of the variety of options available – technology in particular. Technical advances in the disabled space have fundamentally altered people’s lives, and will continue to do so as technology improves.

One of the young men I met during my research, for example, has no arms and made use of a specially designed laptop that he could operate with his feet. Software developments have also greatly assisted deaf or visually impaired students.

The students I met along the way, I realised, are our greatest teachers. These are the young men and women who will help us to introduce systems, processes and solutions that will meet their needs. And as we help them, so we will gradually alter other components of the university ecosystem – from spacial configurations to teaching styles – so that people with disabilities ultimately find themselves in an enabling environment.

These changes, I hope, will introduce some much-needed transformation to the world of disability support.