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Wits has the best disability unit

Wits has one of the best disability units in the country to support students, a roundtable discussion about disability recently revealed.

The round table was convened to reflect on how the lives of people with disability have changed in South Africa, given that the country marks 20 years of democracy under a new dispensation which promotes equality. Moreover, the South African Constitution gives prominence to human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedom.

Panellist Brian Sibanda, a Wits Art student, said he found a second life and only truly understood the nature of his disability when he joined Wits. Suffering from muscular dystrophy, a condition that weakens a person’s muscles over time, Sibanda said that the Wits Disability Unit has gone beyond his expectations to assist him.

Sibanda said: “Once a disability is disclosed the University takes relevant action. I have a care-giver and a panic button in the (residence) room.” This is to ensure an immediate response should he have any difficulty with mobility and other tasks.

“When I came to Wits I didn’t know what I could and couldn’t do because people with disabilities are not adequately educated about their condition,” said Sibanda.

Responding to a public invitation to participate in the discussion, Siegfried Carl Lotter wrote on the Wits Facebook page that “Wits has always accommodated students and even staff with disabilities. I am disabled and studied at Wits from 1973 to 1976 and from 1978 to 1983 obtaining degrees in Psychology and Law. During those years at Wits I enjoyed it very much and got on very well with fellow students and staff. I never encountered any discrimination during my studies. I will always have fond memories of Wits.”

Although the University is acknowledged as a model institution and has received awards in this regard, panellists pointed out areas of improvement, stating that the University could do more.  

Wits lecturer Karen Lazar, who was left with the use of only one hand after suffering a stroke, delivered insightful comments on the topic.

Lazar said that while the University had made strides in improving physical access and ensuring reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities, Wits should learn from its expensive mistakes.   

As an example, Lazar mentioned the modern lifts which were recently installed at the Wits Education Campus, saying that it was dangerous and inoperable by disabled persons.

“Consult disabled (persons) at inception – the very purpose of reasonable accommodation is to ensure dignity and autonomy and when you can’t open the door in the lift you have neither dignity nor autonomy.

“We need to change the way we think about reasonable accommodation and try incorporate disabled people at inception rather than trying to do expensive modifications

She also sensitised the round table attendants about subtle societal practices which violate the rights of differently abled persons.

Disabled people are not afforded separate toilets for men and women. “There is a tendency in society to see disabled people as genderless people and ‘desexed’.”

She also warned against the tendency to place different forms of marginality such as race, gender, disability and sexual orientation, in one basket, which she calls the “marginality basket”.

“Unconsciously Wits tends to regard sexual orientation as a kind of disability. If that is your assumption you are doing two things. First you are flattening the distinction between those two kinds of marginality and you are disabling the political specificity of both.”

What is the overall experience and impression of people with disability about being members of the Wits community?

Sibanda placed emphasis on social marginalisation as an unintentional consequence of placing disabled students on the ground floor of a residence. This, he said, can create another separate community unable to interact with other students.

However, both speakers acknowledged that financial costs and affordability are factors but the University and society need to be aware of these issues.

Professor Tawana Kupe, Wits Deputy Vice-Chancellor whose portfolio includes the Wits Transformation and Employment Equity Office, the hosts of the round table, reiterated the University’s position.

“It is important for a University to live up to the constitutional vision that in our society, no form of disability inequality should be allowed. The University is committed to that mission but it has to close the gap between that commitment, its policies and what is has done to ensure that there is reasonable accommodation.”

Kupe said Wits’ employment and recruitment practices are open to people with disabilities.

1.2% of Wits work force is identified as disabled, which is far below the government’s target of 2%.

Kupe said that the University seeks to exceed this target. “We want to create a diverse campus and we do not want to lose people of talent because we were unable to accommodate a person with a disability.”

Other speakers included Lidia Pretorius from the Department of Social Development; and Khathija Okeke from the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Listen to Pretorius talking about the educational outcomes of people with disability and unemployed disabled graduates.

“From the census it is clear that people with disabilities have lower levels of literacy than their able-bodied peers. Severity of impairment, and geographical location and gender, are major factors in the education attainment of people with disabilities,” said Pretorius.

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