Research Article: Preparation of students with disabilities to graduate into professions in the South African context of higher learning: Obstacles and opportunities

Date Published: February 24, 2016

Publisher: AOSIS

Author(s): Sibonokuhle Ndlovu, Elizabeth Walton.


Persons with disabilities continue to be excluded from professions in South Africa despite legislation on non-discrimination and equity.

We sought to identify both the opportunities and obstacles that students with disabilities face in professional degrees.

Selected texts from the South African and international literature were analysed and synthesised.

Students with disabilities are afforded opportunities to graduate into professions through the current climate of transformation, inclusion and disability policies, various support structures and funding. These opportunities are mitigated by obstacles at both the higher education site and at the workplace. At university, they may experience difficulties in accessing the curriculum, disability units may be limited in the support they can offer, policies may not be implemented, funding is found to be inadequate and the built environment may be inaccessible. Fieldwork poses additional obstacles in terms of public transport which is not accessible to students with disabilities; a lack of higher education support extended to the field sites, and buildings not designed for access by people with disabilities. At both sites, students are impacted by negative attitudes and continued assumptions that disability results from individual deficit, rather than exclusionary practices and pressures.

It is in the uniqueness of professional preparation, with its high demands of both theory and practice that poses particular obstacles for students with disabilities. We argue for the development of self-advocacy for students with disabilities, ongoing institutional and societal transformation and further research into the experiences of students with disabilities studying for professional degrees.

Partial Text

South Africa has legislation and policies that protect the rights of people with disabilities and promote their advancement (Republic of South Africa 1996, 1998, 2000). The reality on the ground, however, is that people with disabilities continue to be excluded from professional work. Disability is defined as difficulties confronted in functioning because of impairment or activity limitations (Statistics South Africa 2012), and using this definition, persons with disabilities are revealed to make up 10% of the total population. The Commission for employment equity, which was carried out in the years 2009–2010, indicated that 3909 persons with disabilities were professionally qualified and employed, which translates to about 0.6% of the total disability population (Ramutloa 2010). The figures suggest that very few persons with disabilities acquire professional degrees, and even those who do are excluded from professional jobs. This exclusion might result from non-implementation of equity and non-discrimination policies (Maja et al.2011). Employers could also hold the view that persons with disabilities are inadequately skilled for the professional labour market (Swartz & Schneider 2006). Addressing this issue is important because persons with disabilities should be seen actively participating in the skilled labour force that South Africa seeks for the 21st century (Carrim & Wangenge-Ouma 2012). As the supply of professional skills is dependent on the output from Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) (Earlie 2008), it is necessary to consider what obstacles and opportunities students with disabilities encounter in HEIs as they prepare to enter the professional workplace.

The nature of professional knowledge makes professional degrees different from other degrees in higher learning. A professional degree is a ‘high level qualification’ (Macdonald 1995:161) characterised by the accumulation of esoteric or abstract knowledge which can be applied in complex situations (Abbott 1988). Professional expertise operates as professionals draw on theoretical knowledge to inform their judgments and action in practice (Winch 2014). This requires, says Freidson (2001:35), ‘a foundation in abstract concepts and formal learning’. Professional curricula, thus, have unique characteristics in that they require both theory and practical application. Shay (2013:575) distinguishes professional curricula from theoretical curricula by saying that the logic of professional curricula ‘is the demands of the practice’. She also explains that professional curricula differ from practical curricula in that ‘the principles informing the practice are derived from theory’. Students graduating into professions, thus, need knowledge of theories and the ability to recognise the contexts to which this theory applies (Clarke & Winch 2004). The development of professional reasoning, judgment and action is a vital part of professional education and, says Winch (2014:58), should be ‘reflected in appropriate assessment arrangements linked to professional curricula’. This article argues that it is in the uniqueness of professional preparation, with its high demands on both theory and practical application, that poses particular obstacles for students with disabilities.

Opportunities and obstacles that students with disabilities might be confronted with, during their preparation to graduate into professions, could be similar to those that students without disabilities face. This is because preparation is standardised for all students and all students must meet the same requirements for graduation and professional registration. We show in this section that there could be additional obstacles and opportunities that are specific to students with disabilities because of their unique needs.

The post-apartheid climate of institutional transformation is a potential opportunity for students with disabilities. During apartheid, the South African schooling system was segregated according to race and disability (Howell 2006). In higher learning segregation was only implemented along racial lines (Howell 2005), which means that students with disabilities have never been explicitly excluded from HEIs. However, as Howell, Chalklen and Alberts (2006) note, with respect to persons with disabilities, ‘… attitudes and institutional practices … have perpetuated some of the deepest inequalities and most severe forms of discrimination in our country’s history’ (p. 78). Students with disabilities have experienced discrimination and exclusion effected by institutional practices that work to the benefit of students without disabilities. With disability now firmly placed on the transformation agenda (Howell et al. 2006), students with disabilities are now represented on the transformation committees that South African HEIs have formed (DoE 2008). The increased awareness of the rights of persons with disabilities, buttressed by the policies described below, should offer improved opportunities for students with disabilities to pursue professional degrees.

South Africa has comprehensive and specific policies for inclusivity in education and training for employment (Department of Education [DoE] 2001a; Department of Higher Education and Training 2013) which indicate political support for the education of learners and students with disabilities. The policies cover general, further and higher education and are concerned with addressing barriers to learning, promoting institutional access for students with disabilities, as well as planning for, and providing appropriate support up to the point of employment. These policies should enable the professionalisation of students with disabilities on two levels. Firstly, the level of schooling is involved, where improved access to quality education for learners with disabilities is envisaged. This should result in improved schooling outcomes for learners with disabilities, and ultimately in their meeting the admission requirements for entry into professional degrees. Secondly, the provisions of the Education White Paper Six (DoE 2001a) make reference to HEIs improving access and support at institutional level. The provisions of the White Paper for Post-School Education (DHET 2013) specifically refer to HEIs providing training for people with disabilities to prepare them for the labour market. The inclusion of students with disabilities in higher learning is also backed by institutional disability policies. There has been an increase in institutions that have disability policies (Fotim Report 2011) and 21% of institutions surveyed by Matshedisho (2007) were using formal policies to provide support for people with disabilities. The rhetoric of policy does not necessarily translate into practice. Inclusion policies are known for their contradictory discourses (Liasidou 2012), particularly as they simultaneously espouse the individual or deficit and social accounts of disability. These contradictions may account for the ‘gap’ between policy and practice (Pather 2011), and may explain why policy does not always translate into opportunities for students with disabilities.

There is also the opportunity of a high level of disability support. Disability Unit staff play an important role in providing direct and indirect support to students. Direct support is usually technical and material through the provision of assistive devices, services and assistance with administrative procedures. Indirect support occurs as Disability Unit staff train lecturers, and work collaboratively with them in teaching students with different categories of disabilities (Matshedisho 2007). According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (United Nations 2006) to which South Africa is a signatory, lecturers are obliged to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ for students with disabilities. Whilst there might be contestations about what constitutes ‘reasonable’, it would be expected that access arrangements would be made for assessments, that there would be adjustments to the delivery of courses, and the provision of course material in an accessible format (Marshall 2008). This, of course, depends on the lecturers’ willingness to teach in ways that include students with disabilities. The opportunity of a high level of professionalisation for students with disabilities could be achieved through the coordinated support of the academics and Disability Unit staff in South African HEIs.

Funding is important for all students if they are to be successfully prepared in higher learning and to graduate into professions. In 1996, South Africa introduced the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS 2013) to fund needy but capable students in higher learning (Carrim & Wangenge-Ouma 2012). Before 2008, students with disabilities had their own funding provided by the Department of Labour under the National Skills Fund (NSFAS 2013), to assist them in studying professional and non-professional degrees. In 2008, the Department of Education introduced a special NSFAS bursary specifically for students with disabilities (NSFAS 2013). The bursary covers students with disabilities who were previously funded through the Department of Labour, and is for undergraduates studying any degree and post-graduates studying professional degrees (NSFAS 2013). The NSFAS bursary for students with disabilities covers the students’ tuition, accommodation, meals, transport costs, costs of material prescribed by the institution and the cost of one or more assistive devices (NSFAS 2013). A particular opportunity is presented by the provision of funds to cover transport expenses. As fieldwork practice, for professional degrees in the South African context, is off campus in most instances (Odendaal-Magwaza & Farman 1997), all students studying professional degrees have transport costs. Students with disabilities enjoy the opportunity of financial support that is specifically for transportation to the field, during field practice. From the list of expenses for which the NSFAS bursary makes provision, it seems that the students with disabilities should be fully financially covered to be successfully prepared to graduate into professions in South Africa.

Students with disabilities may confront obstacles to accessing professional curricula in formerly advantaged institutions in South Africa. Research on transformation in these contexts has revealed that some lecturers are not willing to make changes to the curriculum to enable access for formerly disadvantaged social groups (DoE 2008). This may be exacerbated by the association of disability with incapability in the South Africa context of higher learning (Howell 2006). We could extrapolate conclusions from this and assume that negative perceptions of the capabilities of students, with disabilities and low expectations of their academic performance, could be held by academic staff who are responsible for these students’ professionalisation. Professional degrees are academically demanding (Haralambos & Holborn 1991) and students might choose not to disclose invisible disabilities for fear of being labelled as incapable (Fuller et al.2004; Goode 2007). As a consequence, students with disabilities might not receive the support and accommodation to which they are entitled and this may impact on their ability to acquire the theoretical knowledge that is required for professional expertise.

Preparation to graduate into professions involves practice and experience in the field. As has been mentioned, fieldwork practice for professional degrees mostly takes place off campus at workplaces (Odendaal-Magwaza & Farman 1997). This, then, poses obstacles for students with disabilities over and above those experienced at the HEI site. Students with disabilities may need the support available to them at the HEI site extended to include support in fieldwork. In the British context, there is extended support by higher learning into the field (Botham & Nicholson 2014) but we can find no evidence that this occurs in the South African context. Without extended support, students with disabilities might experience difficulties during fieldwork and this may impact negatively on their professionalisation.

Students with disabilities are confronted with the obstacle of the reproduction of negative attitudes towards them (Howell 2006). This reproduction of negative attitudes in higher learning and in the field emanates from people viewing disability in a negative light. Watermeyer and Swartz (2006) talk of the ‘hostile and patronising attitudes’ (p.1) that people with disabilities in South Africa experience. Many identity markers may lead to negative attitudes by others, but Howell (2006) found that negative attitudes towards students with disabilities in South African higher learning were more pronounced, especially for those from low socio-economic backgrounds, who are sometimes referred to as ‘non-traditional’ students (DoE 2001b). As negative attitudes take a long time to change, students with disabilities continue to experience negative attitudes that hinder full preparation to graduate into professions. South Africa is not alone in this. Other countries also report attitudinal barriers limiting the optimal functioning of students with disabilities in higher learning (Chataika 2007; Holloway 2001).

Self-advocacy may be a way that students with disabilities could challenge the obstacles in higher learning and in the workplace during field practice. In the South African context, Swart and Greyling (2011) reported on a study in which students with disabilities argued that self-advocacy was the way through which they could communicate their needs and demand support to which they are entitled. For students with disabilities to effectively self-advocate in higher learning and the workplace, they need to develop personal characteristics (Swart & Greyling 2011) and specific skills (Getzel & Thoma 2008). Personal characteristics like patience, friendliness, determination and agency are identified as important attributes for students with disabilities who wish to self-advocate, as they will need to negotiate and sometimes demand support (Swart & Greyling 2011). In addition, they need to know who they are, to believe in themselves, to know what works for each of them and to know what services should be provided (Swart & Greyling 2011). The skills necessary for self-advocacy include communication, problem solving and conflict resolution skills (Getzel & Thoma 2008). Students with disabilities need not view themselves as passive subjects, waiting upon academic staff, support staff and personnel in the field to professionalise them. In developed countries such as the USA, self-advocacy has been found to lead to successful outcomes in terms of employment (Test et al. 2005). The implication is that through active engagement, transformation occurs.

After two decades of democracy, higher learning in South Africa has made strides in providing opportunities for students studying professional degrees in general, and students with disabilities in particular. However, a number of obstacles are still experienced, specifically by students with disabilities, which result in a lack of professional skills amongst persons with disabilities in the South African context. These obstacles interact to negatively influence the professionalisation of students with disabilities. It can, therefore, be concluded that the low representation of persons with disabilities in South Africa in professions can, to an extent, be explained by the obstacles they face in their preparation for professions in higher learning. Addressing these obstacles is crucial. It is imperative that the individual approach to disability is deconstructed and that higher education engages with residual discriminatory and exclusionary discourses and practices. In this regard, Walton, Bowman and Osman (2015) note about South African HEIs that: