Stellenbosch University: Disability Unit celebrates 15 years of support and inclusivity

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The Disability Unit at Stellenbosch University (SU) has pioneered many improvements on campus since it was established in January 2007. Unit head Dr Marcia Lyner-Cleophas has been there right from the beginning and is justifiably proud of their achievements over the past 15 years.

“The Disability Unit came about because an increasing number of students with disabilities were enrolling at SU,” recalls Lyner-Cleophas, an educational psychologist. “When we started, there were less than a hundred students with one or other disability. Now, we have in excess of 600 students with one or more disabilities. As many students have positive experiences at SU, we have become known by word of mouth as a campus that is increasingly inclusive of a range of disabilities.”

The Disability Unit is one of four units located in the Centre for Student Counselling and Development (CSCD) and forms part of the Division of Student Affairs (DSAf). “Our core work is student support,” explains Lyner-Cleophas. “We are there to support students with whatever disability they have or might develop.”

UDL and training

Support takes many forms, most notably providing services to students, including helping them to arrange test or exam concessions. This is in line with the concept of universal design for learning (UDL) captured in the University’s Disability Access Policy, which SU adopted in 2018, Lyner-Cleophas says. “UDL speaks to the idea of designing the curriculum, assessments and teaching in a way that is flexible and inclusive of students’ varying learning styles.

“Going forward, we want to put much more emphasis on the gains that we made under Covid-19, and the kind of options that were being explored then. UDL can build on this flexibility so that it becomes the norm. We need to constantly explore these flexible options with our students.”

Training is another key part of the Disability Unit’s work. This includes offering tailor-made training in response to requests from the Students’ Representative Council and any SU department, as well as student leadership disability sensitisation. The Unit also runs the five-week accredited course “Lead with Disability” for students.

And while their primary focus is students, the Unit also participates in Human Resources’ Siyakhula training programme open to all staff. (About 30 current SU staff members have declared disabilities.)

Accessible formats and facilities

In addition, the Disability Unit provides resources to make learning material accessible for students, says Lyner-Cleophas. “We have people who do text conversion if students need Braille or enlarged fonts or electronically scanned books.”

Moreover, the Unit pays attention to the University’s infrastructure and, in partnership with stakeholders such as Facilities Management, constantly explores how areas could be made more accessible. “As new buildings are built on campus, accessibility is given much more consideration. We are striving for inclusive spaces in line with national building regulations that foster accessibility and universal design.”

Everyone’s responsibility

Yet Lyner-Cleophas also emphasises that disability inclusion is everyone’s business. “The Disability Unit is not in charge of everything relating to disability,” she says. “At a policy level, we need to bear in mind that disability is not just about students; it’s about everybody. This means everyone has to take responsibility for disability inclusion – not just the Disability Unit.”

At the same time, she understands that it might be difficult for everyone to identify with persons with disabilities. “If disability is not encountered in a close way, in your home or in the neighbourhood, it’s very difficult for people to envision what it’s like to have a disability. I guess it’s like that for all identities. If you’re not in that space, you can’t really completely identify.

“However, we work from a human rights perspective, so we believe that everyone is entitled to dignity and respect. We have to foster that kind of environment and attitude in people,” she says.

To this end, Lyner-Cleophas has quarterly meetings with Profs Nico Koopman (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel) and Deresh Ramjugernath (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching). “It’s a constructive check-in,” she says. “It not only keeps them informed, but also gives me an opportunity to bring important matters to their attention.”

Active in research too

Lyner-Cleophas is also involved in the African Network for Evidence-to-Action in Disability (AfriNEAD), a flagship project of SU’s Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies. “The Disability Unit is very reflective in the work we do,” she explains. “We see ourselves as researchers as well. We constantly look at how we can better ourselves – our work, our practices, our inputs and our interactions.”

For this reason, their future plans include revising and strengthening the University’s Disability Access Policy and working more closely with academic staff. “If you see the Unit as a central point of consultation and engagement, we have made a lot of progress,” she says. “We’ve deepened our connections and established ourselves as a support service, there to assist everybody on campus as far as possible.”

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