Disability Services help make UCT accessible to all

04 April 2011

Every aspect of the work of the Disability Services (DS) is encapsulated in the unit's slogan - 'Promoting access, finding solutions', states DS Manager Reinette Popplestone.

Popplestone explains the DS team works together with students and other UCT staff to find solutions to challenges faced by people with disabilities who work and study at the University.

This ranges from creating access to existing inaccessible venues, to lobbying for accessible residential and work environments, to creating lecture and study materials for people with sensory impairments and to providing a range of support for people with physical and mental disabilities, such as learning disabilities, epilepsy, and other (invisible) disabilities.

"The work of the DS is complex and we are constantly making choices regarding how to allocate resources most effectively and most fairly," says Popplestone.

Since the unit first opened under the directorship of Kathy Jagoe in the late 1980s, great strides have been made at UCT, and the University is used as a benchmark for best practice at other institutions of higher education.

"We have made great progress with regard to creating access, and have had particular success with our 'retro-fitting' projects - that is, creating barrier-free environments in existing buildings and locales."

The most labour-intensive side of the DS's work is its huge scanning 'factory'. "We scan and convert hard copy into a range of electronic formats and although the software students use to access the electronic files is expensive, we are able to use technological advancements to assist many more staff and students," she says.

One of the DS's success stories has been the Abigail Mlotchwa Day House for students with disabilities. The day house has proved a resounding success with students and it is an extremely well-utilised space.

Popplestone believes its popularity is due to the fact that students with a disability do need an accessible, safe and welcoming space in which to unwind or study without the attention of curious onlookers - however well-meaning or sympathetic - they receive in public spaces.

In recent times the unit has recorded a considerable increase in the number of students with learning and related disabilities. "In the main these students have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, dyslexia and other psychological and psychiatric conditions" says Popplestone.

The DS is responsible for making sure each case is bona fide and that these students are allowed extra time or other accommodations in relation to examinations.

Popplestone explains that this area of support is difficult to administer fairly, as students from disadvantaged backgrounds are often not able to provide the clinical assessments that verify their need for additional examination time.

The DS recently revised UCT's policy on disability and this was ratified by the UCT Council on March 26.

"We received input from internal and external experts during the initial drafts, and later took into consideration concerns and comments by members of Senate and Council. It will become the benchmark against which other universities measure themselves, but also against which UCT will be judged," maintains Popplestone.

"The policy in effect embodies only what the university is already striving to do - and mostly succeeding to do - and that is to deliver to people with disabilities who work and study at the institution, and increasingly importantly, also to those who visit it."

Popplestone added that the policy represented close on four years' work, and included inputs from a wide range of stakeholders.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.