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Business schools need to become more inclusive

A few weeks back I was consulted concerning the communication needs of two deaf participants registered to attend USB-ED’s five-day NPO Leadership and Strategy Programme. Arrangements were made to provide the services of two sign language interpreters, who alternated their services every 30 minutes. Soon after, we had another participant with a hearing impairment who attended the NPO Management Development Programme, and again USB and USB-ED met her communication accessibility needs by providing a digital (wireless) personal listening system. This support, however, did not address issues such as sensitising faculty and peers to her needs, which might have included special arrangements during group work or showing videos with subtitles. This started me thinking about inclusivity at business schools in South Africa. The term ‘inclusivity’ in this instance refers to students with disabilities, but, more  broadly speaking, it would encompass the concept that all educational institutions should strive to provide optimal learning environments for all their students, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, ability or disability.

Despite global initiatives, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which have influenced the drive towards inclusive education in South Africa; despite a national policy framework which supports the inclusion of students with disabilities; and despite many public universities having both disability units and policies concerning reasonable accommodations in the teaching and learning environment, the evidence suggests that little change has taken place. Real and impactful implementation is sorely lacking.  

It is estimated that the average prevalence rate of disability in South Africa is between 5 and 8 per cent. Yet, recent higher education data reveal that only 6 277 students, with (declared) disabilities, were registered at higher education institutions during 2012. This represents a meagre 0,66 per cent of the total student population (HEMIS, 2012). This incongruence seems to indicate clearly that students with disabilities face significant barriers when attempting to continue their post-secondary education. In the absence of registration data specifically related to faculties at universities, and based on the abovementioned statistics, it is reasonable to assume that the prevalence rate of students with disabilities enrolled at business schools would be marginal.  

Nonetheless, inclusivity should be a given. So, how do we change our present shortcomings in this respect?

In order to increase access to educational environments, we need to design curricula that are inclusive, based on the Principles of Universal Learning Design, and provide a teaching and learning environment which is responsive to the needs of the individual. One way of achieving this goal would be to incorporate ‘inclusivity’ as one of the assessment criteria when business schools apply for national or international accreditation. And, with this, I throw down the gauntlet …

Dr Diane Bell
Dr Diane Bell is the Director: Academic Affairs at USB Executive Development (USB-ED). She is also Senior Lecturer Extraordinaire in Management Education, Leadership and Strategic Thinking at the USB.

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