PhD thesis: ‘Experiences of ‘disabled’ students at South African Universities: A Capabilities Approach’

Mutanga, Oliver (2014). 'PhD thesis: 'Experiences of 'disabled' students at South African Universities: A Capabilities Approach'' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Aim: The research study is examining the processes through which disabled students at two South African universities[1] make their educational choices and negotiate different socio-cultural and institutional structures in higher education (HE).

Significance: The study addresses the gap in scholarship on the experiences of 'disabled students' in South African Higher Education (SAHE). Insights into the lives and experiences of disabled students at these universities contribute to scholarship on agency, wellbeing and their opportunities in SAHE. In addition, a nuanced understanding of the concept of disability is being enhanced.

Research Questions:

  • How do 'students with disabilities'experience their studies and interact with HE?
  • How do teaching and learning staff, and disability support managers understand 'disability' and/ the experience of 'students with disabilities'?
  • What are the differences and similarities concerning institutional policies, pedagogical practices and other supporting arrangements for 'students with disabilities'?
  • How can the CA generate a rich theoretical and empirical understanding of 'disability'in HE in the Global South?
  • What implications can be drawn for 'disability' policy and further pedagogical developments to enhance social justice in HE?


Where am I: Data has been collected through in-depth interviews (13 students, 4 lecturers and 3 Disability Unit management staff), field observations and institutional document review. Voice-Centered Relational (VCR) method, which enables detailed attention to narrative accounts, is being used to analyse data. Preliminary findings suggest that although students' experiences are varied, they exercise their agency (individual and social) in confronting different challenges in the university. Data also underscores 1) the contested nature of the concept of disability; 2) shows the significance of individual resilience in negotiating socio-institutional spaces; 3) subtle injustices within higher education 4) intersectionality nature of Race, Class and Gender with disabilities and 5) valued capabilities in higher education. Findings support the capability approach (CA) in many ways-1) conceptual premise that people's capacity to be and to do what they value depends on various factors (conversion factors) and the role of freedom to do and to achieve in pursuit of whatever one values as important (agency). The narratives validate the point made by Alkire and Deneulin (2009) that in order to be agents of their own lives, people need the freedom to be and to do. It is also by being agents that people can build environments in which they can be and do what they have reason to value. These findings also call into question the concept of a uniform service provision for all individuals, independent of their personal characteristics and circumstances (heterogeneity). Participants' stories highlight another form of adaptation (adapting as a means of achieving well-being) which could be seen as a capability to cope with adverse situations- an intelligent form of exploring positive aspects in challenging situations which is different from adaptive preference.

Location of my study: With the Post 2015 Development Agenda debates under way, these findings will contribute to how HE can begin to deal with diversity challenges and how this can be an opportunity for HE to contribute to human development.

[1] University 1 is a historically advantaged urban based white Afrikaans university and University 2 is a historically disadvantaged rural based university for Black students.


PhD-based publications

  • Mutanga, O and Walker, M (under review) Enhancing qualitative research in the midst of power differentials: Reflexive cognitive interviewing as a research approach.
  • Mutanga O (2014) Book Review of Enhancing Capabilities: The Role of Social Institutions, by Hans-Uwe Otto and Holger Ziegler (Eds), Opladen, Barbara Budrich Publishers, 2013, 236 pp., Disability and Society. 29(1): 167-169.
  • Mutanga O. (2013) 'I am a university student, not a disabled student': conceptualising identity and social justice in South African higher education through the capabilities approach lens. Journal of Educational Studies. 12(1): 76-88.


PhD based conference presentations, 2013-2014

  • Mutanga O. (30-31 January 2014) Rights (dis)qualifications? Examining the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in the South African Higher Education context. Diversity and the Politics of Engaged Scholarship: A comparative study in higher education Colloquium. University of the Free State.
  • Mutanga O. (27-29 November 2013) Disability Policies and South African Higher Education: Status Quo and Ways Forward. HELTASA Conference, UNISA, Pretoria.
  • Mutanga O. (29-31 October 2013) 'I am a university student, not a disabled student:' identity and social justice at South African higher education through the Capabilities Approach. Sustainable Learning Environments and Social Justice Colloquium, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein.
  • Mutanga O. (30-31 May 2013) 'Know me as I am': Using cognitive interviewing to explore disability as a field of study at a South African University. Nordic Network on Disability Research 12th Conference, Turku, Finland.
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