Good practices emerging to ease HE entry for disabled students

A growing number of good practice case studies in Africa are helping to guide universities and colleges when it comes to how best to boost the access of disabled students to higher education across the continent.

More than 80 million Africans have disabilities, the UN reported in the newsletter Africa Renewal in 2018-19. Not only are their university prospects fewer than for able-bodied Africans, but disabled children are “less likely to complete primary education”, said Daniela Bas, the director for inclusive social development at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Bas told University World News that this weakness has broad economic and social consequences. “Education, especially higher education and lifelong learning, is a powerful tool for overcoming poverty, promoting social inclusion and reducing the gap of socio-economic and environmental inequalities,” she said.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) for better tertiary education for students with disabilities (SWD) “contributes to increased employment, higher GDPs, and less pressure on social protection systems”.

It entails progress toward other SDGs, such as “building accessible information and communications technology” (ICT). Besides, Bas stressed, it leads to “disability inclusion in all areas”, including less discrimination against women with disabilities through their growing participation in decision-making processes.

Open, inclusive education systems

Hervé Bernard, head of the social and inclusion division at Humanity & Inclusion (previously Handicap International), an international federation based in Lyon, France, said that many African countries are working on inclusive education, including increasing access to academic institutions for disabled students. In some cases, this means starting at the source: consolidating access to primary education.

Several African countries offer scholarships to disabled students. Some go even further. Mauritius, for example, reimburses taxi fares for students who are severely disabled, according to the 2018 UN Disability and Development Report.

Bernard observed that, in the Maghreb region (North Africa), for instance, there is a trend towards moving to a more open and inclusive education system. Central and east African countries are “trying to move to more inclusive services, reinforcing the capacity of mainstream education”.

South Africa, the continent’s most developed economy, offers better practices regarding disabled access.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), for example, conferred a conservation sciences PhD on a deaf zoologist in May 2022. Dr Nancy Barker followed lions and spotted hyenas to study their interactions, creating tools for finding how to connect different patches of habitats using wildlife corridors, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES) reported on 23 May 2022.

Barker’s success was no accident, noted Normah Zondo, executive director at UKZN’s corporate relations division. She emphasised that the university has one of the highest numbers of SWD enrolled at an [higher education] institution in South Africa – 470, which is 1% of the total student population.

Training and assistive devices offered

UKZN has operated a disability support unit since 2004, which also helps students with psychiatric disabilities, such as anxiety disorder and learning disabilities.

The institution has developed solutions, including scribes to help disabled students write assignments, tests and exams (following their vocal dictation). It has also purchased Braille machines and wheelchairs, as well as offering advocacy services, funding and counselling.

And, while a 2019 University of Texas at Austin study suggested that the university could spend more on this initiative and expand its resources, Zondo stressed that the unit “has grown significantly” to incorporate specialist staff to deal with multiple disabilities.

The Tangaza University College (TUC) in Nairobi, Kenya, a Catholic higher education institution, is another university working to improve disabled student access.

It currently has 25 such students, who represent 1.25% of the student body, according to Brenda Betty Kiema, its disability inclusion officer.

A TUC disability inclusion office was established in 2019 with the support of The Netherlands-based Liliane Foundation, and it counts nine workers. It offers training for staff and students, assistive devices, sign language and suitable accommodation at TUC hostel, besides assisting students to find financial assistance and helping disabled staff receive their tax exemptions.

This small institution is looking ahead to boost support for more disabled students in Kenya, having launched the Universities Disability Inclusion Network (UDIN) in 2019 to unite “all universities in Kenya to start focusing on disability inclusion in higher education”, explained Kiema.

She quoted data from the Kenya Commission for University Education, noting that, in 2017, only 793 of a total of 565,045 Kenyan higher education students had disabilities, with 85% enrolled in public institutions (nine).

“To date, we have had three major workshops on knowledge sharing, knowledge management and community of practice,” said Kiema.

West African archipelago Cape Verde has also seen positive initiatives – out of 4,650 students at the University of Cape Verde, 28 have disabilities, including bronchial asthma, said Aleida Furtado, president of the university’s faculty of education and sport.

The university offers staff and student training, including in Braille and Braille musicology, adjustment of assessments to take account of disability, a masters degree in special education – cognitive and motor domain, and, from the next academic year, a bachelor degree in special education, she mentioned.

Sign language still a problem

“It has not been easy to deal with hearing impairment, because Cape Verde has not instituted sign language. Portuguese sign language is used, with adaptations from Creole [the main Cape Verdean language], she noted.

“Furthermore, there are only a small number of people with the domain and training in this area,” although the government is funding an interpreter to assist two deaf students.

The private, non-profit Jean Piaget University of Cape Verde has welcomed disabled students since opening in 2001. There are now 10 disabled students, 0.9% of the total. Most of them are blind, according to the rector, Professor Joanita Cristina Rodrigues.

In 2019, the work of the Jean Piaget Institute (which was responsible for setting up this university) was recognised by the Association for the Visually Impaired of Cabo Verde (ADEVIC, in the Portuguese acronym). The institution offers training in assistive technologies to support people with disabilities. It has a Braille printer and a 3D printer producing tactile documents such as 3D maps.

The university plans to open an inclusion and accessibility office in the next academic year, pending government funding approval. The office would offer special hardware and software, voice synthesisers, audio study materials, training in sign language and deaf culture, and advising lecturers in providing distance learning for people with disabilities.

While such training could be positive, it only works with broad-based internet access and the UN’s Bas stressed that, while the COVID-19 crisis has pushed four out of five countries globally to move to distance learning, disabled students are less likely to have access to internet and ICT devices specially adapted to their needs.

Internet access and technology lacking

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of households lack internet access. So, while distance learning is “likely here to stay”, and can aid disabled students, it is important to “remove architectural and cultural barriers” to its use, she said.

Rodrigues agrees. It was “harder” during the pandemic because the “precarious financial situation” of some families meant not everyone had access to technologies. But, where internet access is more common, such as in South Africa, real progress can be made with remote learning.

At UKZN, the “pandemic has equalised access to information” for disabled and able-bodied students, forcing learning strategies and lecturers to answer the needs of disabled students, who got more “digital independence”, more confidence, and faced reduced stigma, said Zondo.

The pandemic was a blessing in disguise at Kenya’s TUC because it also forced the institution and its lecturers to find solutions for these learners, said Kiema, highlighting that the learning management system Google Classroom is user-friendly to students with visual impairment.

Bernard, of Humanity & Inclusion, said that, despite the “impressive” interest of African universities in helping disabled students, assistance measures should become compulsory since enforcement initiatives are currently mainly undertaken by teachers or specific projects run by NGOs. And this may matter to the entire world.

Bernard believes that the risk of Africa missing out on its own Stephen Hawking, the English theoretical physicist whose discoveries made the detailed study of black holes possible, despite suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is high, especially because reaching university is much harder for all in Africa and especially for gifted students with disabilities.