An examination of disability policies in higher education: Creation of opportunities and well-being of disabled students at two South African universities

Mutanga, Oliver (2014). 'An examination of disability policies in higher education: Creation of opportunities and well-being of disabled students at two South African universities' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Although South Africa is hailed as one of the few countries in the world that have signed and ratified the Convention and Protocol on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), there is a disjuncture between policies on disability and practice in South Africa owing to a lack of coherent national disability legislation. The current South African legislative frameworks provide the foundation for building dignity, self-worth and individual rights for disabled students. However, the underpinning human rights qualifications: reasonable accommodation, availability of resources, appropriate measures and individualised support, when scrutinised in higher education (HE) settings do not secure the necessary capabilities for disabled students to do and to be what they have reason to value. This paper examines the human rights language by juxtaposing the rights qualifications mentioned above, with the experiences of thirteen disabled students at two South African universities. Data was collected through in-depth interviews, field observations and a review of institutional documents. Transcripts of the audiotaped interviews were subjected to content analysis. Focusing on disabled students' experiences with university funding, accommodation, teaching and learning, findings suggest that legislative provisions on disability in South African higher education (SAHE) are conceivably weak and vaguely implemented, and result in the perpetuation of social injustices within universities. What is strikingly in these two universities is that there are no working written disability policies-they all have 'draft' disability policies and it was only accessible at one university. Disability policy at one of the universities suggests that the provision for disabled students is subject to availability of funds. This conditional provision is also rooted in the CRPD language- availability of resources. Is it socially-just for institutions to anchor service provision on the availability of resources? What qualifies as reasonable accommodation or an appropriate measure? These are some of the questions that the rights language fails to answer convincingly. While most participants are funded by different institutions, some of the conditions do not create opportunities that are valued by participants. Some funding institutions prescribe the programmes of study and give no room of choice making for students. Additionally, some funding institutions provide tuition funds without other supporting mechanisms like career guidance. While appropriate measures are put in place in securing accommodation for disabled students by universities, at times the arrangements limit the social space for wheelchair users by confining them either to their own rooms or the designated residences. Besides the lack of suitable adaptations and equipment at these institutions, some challenges for disabled students created by faculty members and students' lack of awareness and unresponsiveness around disability were cited. As a way forward, the paper will argue that capabilities approach (CA) language can complement the human rights language through its emphasis on each individual's choices and participation on matters they have reason to value. The CA proves to be an important framework in designing as well as evaluating disability legislative framework.

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