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Thought Thursdays
Achieving sustainable goals for the future we want by reducing inequality in education


Since 1992, the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) has been celebrated annually on 3 December around the world. This celebration is a means to promote an understanding of people with disability and to encourage support for their dignity, rights and well-being. The main driver for commemorating the 3rd of December is to work towards ensuring an inclusive and accessible society for all.

The theme for this year’s International Day is Achieving 17 Goals for the Future We Want. This theme notes the recent adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Figure 1) and the role of these goals in building a more inclusive and equitable world for persons with disabilities.

Figure 1: 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, Source

This year’s objectives include assessing the current status of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD)​ and SDGs and laying the foundation for a future of greater inclusion for persons with disabilities.

So, in terms of SGD4:  Quality Education, what is the current reality for students with disabilities at universities in South Africa? Just how far have we come?

In South Africa we are awash in ink and paper – policies and white papers, an entire government department ostensibly devoted to advancing the interests of persons with disabilities, ministerial committees, presidential working groups, disability machinery and more disabled people organisations (DPOs) than can be counted. So, ‘disabilities’ are on the tongues and pouring from the presses of government institutions, not least in the Higher Education Ministry. Yet, it seems that very little of this has translated into real change for the majority of persons with disabilities in South Africa.

There is a perception that small pockets of people with disabilities in the country have benefited from this ‘paper-mill’, i.e. copious policies with little or no implementation with significant impact. It seems that many people with disabilities have found jobs and careers in advocacy organisations, as parliamentarians, and in government departments, such as our two blind people in the cabinet – Minister of Justice Michael Masutha, and Minister of Social Development Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu.

In South Africa’s more advantaged universities, students are receiving enhanced support services, of which people with disabilities from earlier generations could only have dreamt, including Sign Language interpreters, live text captioners, peer note-takers, induction loop technology in large lecture venues, etc. However, the number, types and quality of services are still almost exclusively dependent on the advocacy skills and the acumen of the heads of Disability (Rights) Units. Though such units have expanded in number since the late 80s, repeated research studies have revealed large discrepancies regarding both quality of service as well as type of services provided. As an example, students who are blind at these universities are likely to receive the bulk of their study material in an accessible format, and have access to sophisticated assistive technology, such as JAWS, via which they access their study materials and complete individual assignments by means of a computer. There is also an increased awareness and a sense of obligation at most of these universities about the need to cater for students and staff with mobility limitations; however, it should be stressed that these services and facilities are patchily available at other less fortunate institutions of higher education across the country.

All of this is in glaring contrast with the lack of both inclusive and specialised education at primary and secondary school level in South Africa. It seems, for a multitude of reasons that inclusion only exists in the post-school education sector. Education for children with sensory disabilities is deteriorating by the day – one fears for the current generation of children in special schools when it is their turn to enter post-school studies or the workplace. In the blindness sector, for instance, many professions which had for generations been successfully practised have disappeared as possibilities – physiotherapy, music and other teaching, and piano tuning (out of which blind people made a very respectable living for a long time, often branching out into owning businesses selling musical instruments and sheet music, etc.).  Even switchboard operation, which made the businesses and government departments in this country function seamlessly since the 1940s, have disappeared from the scene, as switchboards became automated and digitised.

The group of persons with disabilities who may have reaped relatively more benefits than their counterparts, given the low level of access from which they started, are Deaf people who use Sign Language as their primary medium of communication.  In 2009 statistics estimated that there were only 15 Deaf graduates in the entire country, compared to literally hundreds of people with other disabilities. But today a steady stream of Deaf graduates are emerging from four or five South African universities. Their number is still small, but significant.

Funding, in the form of bursaries for students with disabilities from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), is today more generous and covers more assistive technology than ever before, including a limited amount to cover the costs of ‘human support’, thanks to the work of the Higher and Further Education Disability Services Association (HEDSA).

This article would not be complete without mentioning the currently contentious SETAs. Although the SETAs offer hundreds of so-called learnerships for persons with disabilities, the individual seldom benefits beyond the learning programme, i.e. the SETA intervention does not result in employment or long-term change in socioeconomic situation.

So, here’s the question – if you stop 100 South Africans with disabilities in the street, will they tell you that their circumstances have improved significantly over the past 20 to 30 years? We predict that the answer, in the main, would be ‘no’.

So, as we approach the 3rd of December, the day on which we celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, let’s not only remember the ‘forgotten tribe’ – those South Africans who are most likely to experience poverty and discrimination due to unsympathetic social and cultural norms as well as problems with accessing health, education and employment – but let’s also actually do something to change their current reality, such as domesticating the UNCRPD in South Africa​.

Dr Diane Bell is the Director: Academic Affairs at USB Executive Development (USB-ED). She is also Senior Lecturer Extraordinaire at the USB.


Reinette Popplestone is the head of the Disability Unit at UCT and has been involved, as a person with a disability herself, in the disability sector for the past 25 plus years.

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