Date Published: August 29, 2017
Author(s): Sameerchand Pudaruth, Rajendra P. Gunputh, Upasana G. Singh.
Students with disabilities in the tertiary education sector are more than a just a phenomenon, they are a reality. In general, little attention is devoted to their needs despite the fact that they need more care and attention.
This paper, through a case study at the University of Mauritius, sought to answer some pertinent questions regarding students with disabilities. Does the University of Mauritius have sufficient facilities to support these students? Are students aware of existing facilities? What additional structures need to be put in place so that students with any form of disability are neither victimised, nor their education undermined? Are there any local laws about students with disabilities in higher education?
To answer these questions and others, an online questionnaire was sent to 500 students and the responses were then analysed and discussed. The response rate was 24.4% which showed that students were not reticent to participate in this study.
Our survey revealed that most students were not aware of existing facilities and were often neglected in terms of supporting structures and resources. ICT facilities were found to be the best support that is provided at the University of Mauritius. The right legal framework for tertiary education was also missing.
Ideally, students with disabilities should have access to special facilities to facilitate their learning experiences at tertiary institutions. Awareness about existing facilities must also be raised in order to offer equal opportunities to them and to enable a seamless inclusion.
According to the 2011 population census, there are 59 868 people with disabilities in the Republic of Mauritius, which corresponds to a disability prevalence rate of about 5% (Statistics Mauritius 2015). Although this is lower than the global disability prevalence rate (WHO 2011), the Republic of Mauritius has been implementing laws and policies for the well-being of people with disabilities since 1976 with the promulgation of the National Pensions Act 1976 (Supreme Court 2017). The Republic of Mauritius signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2007 and ratified it in 2010 although certain reservations were made in relation to Articles 9.2(d), 9.2(e), 11 and 24.2(b) (UNTC 2017). Article 24 of the UNCRPD stipulates that all member states shall ensure that people with disabilities should be given equal opportunities to follow tertiary education (UNCRPD 2006). Article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child also guarantees the right to a free primary education (OHCHR 2016). According to the World Disability report (WHO 2011), there are about 1 billion people in this world who have some form of disability. For example, in Malawi, more than 97% of children with disabilities do not have access to education (Chilemba 2013). Despite the fact that many countries, including Mauritius, have signed and ratified the UNCRPD, most of them, have failed in their obligations to conceptualise and implement the right to education for students with disabilities as envisaged by the international conceptual approaches and legal standards of inclusive standard in the UNCRPD. The UNCRPD defines a disability as a long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment, which may hinder a person’s full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. Persons with disabilities are often the subject of severe social stigma, discrimination and harassment which consequently force them to live under the misguided belief that their lives are shameful and not worthy of respect (Peltzer 2014; Waterstone & Stein 2008). This has resulted in the creation of a culture of marginalisation and routine discrimination, in a society which is already on the downfall, especially in developing countries where children with disabilities do not have access to education. Poverty, unemployment and social tensions (civil wars, discrimination) also account for this. Therefore, there is an uncontested connection between poverty and disability (Degener 2017; Rubey 2002; Schneider, Mokomane & Graham 2016).
Georgeson, Mamas and Swain (2015) define a disabled student as ‘any student who has a sensory, cognitive, physical or psychological impairment’. The White Paper on Education (in South Africa) defines a person with a disability as ‘a person limited or impaired in one or more functional activities which prevents full and equal academic, social and economic participation’ (UKZN 2004). The impairment may be permanent, recurring or transitory and may be sensory, physical, cognitive or psychological (UKZN 2004). There is a general increase in the number of students with disabilities entering higher education in developed countries (AHEAD 2015; Altbach, Reisberg & Rumbley 2009; NCES 2016). Especially when distance education institutions understood the special needs of students with disabilities, they began to develop support systems that assisted these students by providing materials using alternative forms of media, and by adopting enabling technologies (Kirkup 2015).
An online self-administered or self-completion questionnaire (Appendix 1), which included a mixture of open-ended and closed questions, was used for the data collection process. This questionnaire was benchmarked against similar studies undertaken internationally (Dent et al. 2015; Healey et al. 2015; Meyer et al. 2012; Roualdes 2013). The primary data collected were derived from the anonymous responses received to the online questionnaire. The questionnaire focused on gathering information on the general awareness of students regarding students with disabilities, the perceived views of students about the support structures available to students with disabilities, the awareness of laws by students to support students with disabilities, the obstacles students with any form of disability are facing in tertiary and higher education and the role of e-learning in providing a more supportive learning environment for students with disabilities.
As presented earlier, the questionnaire was distributed to 500 students, which represents about 4% of the total student population of the University of Mauritius. A total of 122 responses, which represents a response rate of 24.4%, were received in total, with 6 responses from students with disabilities.
Of the 500 students who were sent the questionnaire, only 122 responded, out of which 6 were students with disabilities. Compared to the percentage of students with disabilities at the University of Mauritius, this is a relatively high response rate. The University of Mauritius has a population of 12 500 students. This could indicate that these students were not reticent to participate in this study to demonstrate their knowledge or voice their concerns. For ethical and data privacy reasons, it was not possible to get a named list of students with disabilities from the University of Mauritius. It was noted that participants were aware of family members and fellow students with disabilities.
This study indicates that the University of Mauritius has been making some effort to provide special facilities and arrangements to support students with disabilities. Nevertheless, some support structures, such as student liaison officers, appropriate recreational and sport facilities and special access features have been identified as lacking at the university by the students. The introduction of these facilities coupled with increased awareness of them will ensure that students with disabilities are able to pursue their studies with the same amount of effort as those without any disabilities. Most students identified e-learning as having a key role to play in the support of students with disabilities. Essentially, the problems and barriers that are faced by students with disabilities in tertiary education must not be overlooked, in order to offer equal opportunities to every student. To conclude, students with disabilities are neither forgotten nor excluded at the University of Mauritius; however, more effort is certainly required for their seamless inclusion.
Two limitations associated with this study are the small number of participants with disabilities and that the context is restricted to the University of Mauritius. Future research should look at expanding this to include the participation of more students with disabilities and more tertiary institutions in Mauritius and abroad in order to get a more holistic picture of the situation.