UCT's Disability Service is "constantly evolving"

28 April 2016 | Photo Michael Hammond.
Director of UCT's Disability Service, Reinette Popplestone.
Director of UCT's Disability Service, Reinette Popplestone.

Reinette Popplestone, director of UCT's Disability Service, says that the services UCT offers to ensure fair access for its students and staff with disabilities is "constantly evolving". This constant evolution reflects the Disability Service's attempts to respond to each student or staff member's unique needs.

"People are critical sometimes because we are reactive instead of proactive," says Popplestone. But this is by design, she says. Instead of offering a defined set of services, the Disability Service prefers to be approached by students and staff with disabilities, who are then able to explain their particular needs. The unit then makes the necessary arrangements - whether it's organising a wheelchair, finding a sign-language interpreter or hiring a note-taker to assist with a student's lectures.

"We work towards finding a solution to a problem," says Popplestone.

She sees the Disability Service as an instrument that the university can use to support the various needs of students and staff with disabilities.

Much of the work they do is difficult to quantify, she says. It's described in the unit's 2014/2015 annual report as "heart work" in which all the members of the Disability Service team "with their unique set of skills, accompany students and staff with disabilities on their journey towards a successful outcome, whether it is successfully graduating or accessing buildings and services in order to meet their goals as UCT staff".

And it's not just students and staff with permanent disabilities that are assisted.

Popplestone recounts the story of a student who was unable to write in a standard exam venue after fracturing her coccyx. Forced to shift constantly between standing up and lying down, she needed a chair big enough to support the therapeutic cushion that helped to relieve her pain. Popplestone was glad to report that the student wrote and passed all of her exams.

The Disability Service has increasingly seen the need to improve its capacity to help students with mental-health challenges. This ranges from organising special exam-period support for students with Tourette's syndrome, to providing ongoing support to students with autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit disorder, for example.

To this end, they employ a consultant psychologist for 25 hours a week to address cases in which students feel they need extra time during exams. During 2014 the psychologist met 294 students who applied for a time concession, and extra time was given to more than half of these students.

Reinette Popplestone, from UCT's Disability Service, and Chaeli Mycroft, from IkeyAbility, talk about access and services for persons with disabilities on campus.

The case-by-case nature of the Disability Service is also demonstrated by its work in facilitating access to the university for a semester-abroad student with quadriplegia.

"Together with her two assistants, we provided accessible accommodation in Forest Hill, [and she] completed her semester with excellent results, obtaining 72, 80 and 91% respectively, the latter for isiXhosa," the unit reports. "As well as the accommodation - we provided her with accessible transport between her residence and lectures, a peer note-taker and a scribe for tests and exams."

In September 2014 an assistive hearing system was installed in the Mafeje Room in the Bremner Building. The system ensures that the voices of speakers anywhere in the room are picked up by anyone in the building who is using a hearing aid. And the Disability Service would like to do even more, but funding is an ongoing challenge, says Popplestone. "We've greatly increased the services we offer without greatly increasing our resources."

Much of the money available goes to retrofitting buildings to be wheelchair-friendly and for the special Jammie Shuttle that transports students and staff with disabilities to and from the university.

Although two sign-language interpreters shared between four deaf students might sound like enough, Popplestone says that time-table clashes mean that it often isn't. Situations like this have led to some tension between the two areas that the Disability Service wants to focus on: service delivery and advocacy.

"If it comes down to a straight choice, I'd choose service delivery," says Popplestone. The idea, of course, is that they should never have to make that choice.

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.