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Students with disabilities still under-represented in HE sector



Across South Africa, about 5 087 students with disabilities are pursuing their studies in higher education institutions. However, this figure is quite low as students do not always disclose disabilities and categorisation systems across the higher education sector are not uniform.

These are the words of the Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education Disability Services Association (HEDSA), Ms Marcia Lyner-Cleophas, as she discusses the Association's upcoming symposium and persisting challenges.

HEDSA is an advocacy and rights-based non-profit organisation (NPO) representing the collective voice of disability services in higher and further education institutions in South Africa. It is recognised and endorsed by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and is accepted as a community of practice by Higher Education South Africa (HESA).

The aim of this year's symposium, says Lyner-Cleophas, who is also the Head of the Office for Students with Special Learning Needs (Disabilities) at Stellenbosch University (SU), is to "equip those who directly support students with disabilities with the required skills to promote access, inclusion and advocacy". The symposium will be held at STIAS in Stellenbosch from 2-3 October this year and will be opened by Prof Arnold Schoonwinkel, Vice-Rector: Teaching & Learning at SU.  

 "Although we have made many strides in the past 20 years as a sector, and more recently since the establishment of HEDSA in 2007, students with disabilities still do not fully enjoy the inclusive practices expanded upon in various South African policy documents. Even up to today, many Technical Vocational Education and Training colleges do not have disability units such as those established at most higher education institutions," says Lyner-Cleophas.

Ms Celeste Wolfensberger, HEDSA's Vice-Chairperson, concurs: "In South African institutions, the support offered to students with disabilities is diverse and varied – from well-established disability support services to a few that are still trying to establish such support. The aim of this symposium is to directly support those services where resources are limited with good practice and knowledge. Part of HEDSA's mandate is to share best practices and the symposium allows an opportunity where those in the disability field can share, learn and network with each other."

Lyner-Cleophas explains that because few students with disabilities are afforded the chance to pursue their studies with the necessary support, it is important for higher education institutions to pledge their support institutionally and create an inviting and welcoming environment for people with disabilities. "We need to create an inviting environment because this sector of the student population is still fairly new to education and attitudes of exclusion still present. Such attitudes make students hesitant to apply to study beyond high school and make staff who teach and support unsure of what is possible."

HEDSA's impact on disability issues

Thus far, HEDSA has made a significant impact on disability issues in South Africa. In recent times alone, submissions made by HEDSA and other disability advocacy groups in the country have been included in the recommendations of the DHET Ministerial Committee for the Development of a strategic policy framework on Disability in the Post-School Sector. This, together with the White Paper for Post-School Education and Training, prompted the DHET Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, to request that a strategic policy framework to guide the improvement of access and success in the sector be investigated. HEDSA will have direct representation and input as part of the Reference Team that will work on the draft policy framework.

The NPO was also part of the lobby group which in a letter to President Jacob Zuma and the ANC "expressed its dissatisfaction" with the disbandment of the Department of Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities (DWCPD). Shortly thereafter, the President established a Presidential Working Group on Disability tasked with championing and monitoring the work of government departments and society with regards to disability.

Representatives from universities in South Africa as well as from various bodies that represent disability in the country will be present at the symposium.



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