Learning under lockdown: Prioritising UCT’s most vulnerable students

24 April 2020 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo Pexels. Read time 7 min.
Students with disabilities have displayed strength and resilience to the change in learning methodology during lockdown.
Students with disabilities have displayed strength and resilience to the change in learning methodology during lockdown.

To ensure that students complete the academic year without further delay, part of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) multi-faceted response to the global COVID-19 pandemic has been to join other leading South African universities in starting remote teaching and learning.

UCT has prioritised the needs of all students, placing particular focus on its most vulnerable, which includes students with disabilities, to ensure the new, temporary learning methodology is tailored to their individual needs.

Remote learning at the university kicked off with orientation week on Monday, 20 April, to help students familiarise themselves with the online learning environment. Formal teaching will start on Tuesday, 28 April.

According to Dr Sianne Alves, director of UCT’s Office for Inclusivity & Change (OIC), the university’s Disability Service – under the guidance of Denise Oldham, coordinator at Direct Services – has spent the past few weeks establishing how each individual disability requires a shift in learning technique and troubleshooting, and discussing any challenges that could arise.


“Tailoring this approach [remote teaching and learning] means being flexible and obtaining the views and opinions of students.”

Alves assured UCT News that she is confident that the Disability Service will be able to support and respond to any challenges once the remote teaching and learning plan gets underway.

“COVID-19 is an entirely new situation without precedent. It is a matter of life and death. Tailoring this approach [remote teaching and learning] means being flexible and obtaining the views and opinions of students,” she said.

Navigating the online space

As a starting point in the online learning process, the university set out to establish whether students with disabilities have access to technology and the necessary software programmes to ensure “equitable access” to online learning.

Access to data and the internet remains a challenge, especially for students from marginalised communities in remote parts of the country. This, Oldham said, was and remains an important factor for consideration while coordinating this modern-day learning process.

“Scenario planning has already taken place for each disability. Right now, the priority is to ensure students who have indicated technological [requirements], as well as those with mental health conditions who require course accommodations, are assisted speedily,” she said.

Supporting students

Oldham explained that students who rely on notetakers and scribes for face-to-face interactions have also been a key focus, as have students who don’t make use of laptops and cellphones. She said in the latter instance that the Disability Service has adopted a blended approach with the use of images, which students will capture, upload and send to lecturers for review.

Students with mental health conditions also receive ongoing support in the form of extra time applications and verified accommodation letters, and carers and psychologists continue to liaise with students who require mental health support during this time.

During remote online learning, asynchronous learning for students with specific learning disabilities means students can self-manage their learning processes. Hard-of-hearing students using South African Sign Language interpreters will use WhatsApp video for interactions and, if data allows, Zoom conferencing to access sign interpretation. Oldham said blind students have access to the Job Access With Speech (JAWS) programme on their computers for ease of learning.

“Disability Service will be available to assist students as the need arises during remote learning, and there will be needs arising that we could not foresee.”

Teaching vulnerable students remotely

Alves said the OIC is aware that physical and environmental stressors, such as gender-based violence and unfavourable living conditions, can make learning from home difficult. But the university is committed to ensuring that students are “completely supported” and will continue to provide the necessary physical resources and emotional and learning support students require.


“We are doing our best to assist students with the support services available.”

“We are doing our best to assist students with the support services available. Within this plan, we expect that students will either struggle to quickly acclimatise to learning online, or they will not be able to participate equally,” Alves said.

Therefore, she urged students who require online learning support to reach out via the UCT Call Centre and Referral System (CARES) line (still being set up), and students who experience gender-based violence to contact the OIC by SMS/calling or sending a “please call me” to 072 393 7824.

Strength and resilience

Alves said students with disabilities have displayed great “strength and resilience” and their response to the change in learning has ranged from positive to feelings of anxiety.

“The anxiety related to the extraordinary measures taken to [flatten] the [coronavirus] curve affects us all, and levels of home support varies [from student to student],” she said.

Alves also said that the time South Africa and the world finds itself in has forced the Disability Service at UCT to innovate, and this has opened a “world of possibility” beyond COVID-19. Support systems for students with disabilities remain in place during lockdown; these include advocacy guidance and advice, processing applications for extra time, test and exam concessions, and text conversion for visually impaired students. Alves encouraged students to make use of these services online when necessary.

“The full effects of the pandemic are yet to be seen in terms of the effects on the most vulnerable in our society. Now we need to show compassion, empathy and concern for each other,” Alves said.

Making the ‘imperfect workable’

UCT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation, Professor Loretta Feris, said it is understandable that students with disabilities feel “particularly vulnerable” during this time.


“Much of what we are going through as a country, and as the world, requires us to make the imperfect workable.”

“Much of the support [you] would normally receive on campus is no longer available. This is not ideal, but we also acknowledge that much of what we are going through as a country, and as the world, requires us to make the imperfect workable,” Feris said.

“My hope is that as we navigate this imperfect world, we will begin to see the opportunities, in particular how we can utilise online learning methodologies to support students with disabilities much more than we have in the past.”

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In an email to the UCT community, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said:
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