Mental health and disability must play a much larger role in the drive towards making UCT inclusive and accessible, members of the campus community heard at the UCT for Disability Justice gathering on 26 January.
Student activist Kanyisa Ntombini chaired the meeting, held outside the Bremner Building, and a list of demands from students was handed to Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price.
Among these demands were calls for reviews of the university's disability policy, the Disability Unit and its resources and services, as well as the Student Wellness Services where students say more psychologists are needed to meet demand, especially black psychologists.
The list also highlighted inadequacies in facilities such as lecture theatres, bathrooms, residences and ramps and rails. It identified problems in the university's current extra time and leave of absence policies, which present barriers to students coping with mental health challenges such as anxiety disorder and depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
The memorandum called for a greater sensitisation of UCT staff and students, particularly first-year students.
Several students shared their experiences of prejudice, discouragement and isolation as a result of disability or their mental health status. Others wrote to tell their stories.
One student spoke of the “profound lack of understanding” about mental illness at UCT and the lack of a policy to substantially address the issues.
Student activist Busi Mkhumbuzi said: “Accessibility must be at the front and centre of student politics. When we say we need to make our universities more accessible to students we're including race, social status, disability and a host of things that comprise our identity.
“Last year we saw the Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall and Patriarchy Must Fall movements, challenging things like racism, classism and sexism. But I don't think we've seen a radical or a strong conversation about ableism or about disability at UCT. That means we have not addressed the issue in totality.”
To tackle these challenges Mkhumbuzi called for the creation of a sitting committee of student representatives to be set up within the sub-structures of the Curriculum Review Task Team.
Barriers to students with disabilities or those with mental health challenges are many and varied. One master's student with dyslexia spoke of the frustrations of not being able to present her work in another form.
“Much of academia is locked behind words and much of it requires intensive reading and writing... How can we look at other ways where students at all levels can start to produce knowledge that everyone can access and that is 'other' than reading and writing and that doesn't sit in the arts?”
Afterwards the group broke into focus groups to discuss issues such as disability and sexuality/queerness, disability and blackness, disability and patriarchy and disability and transness.
A follow-up meeting is planned.
Story by Helen Swingler. Photo by Michael Hammond.
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