Research Article: Wheelchair users, access and exclusion in South African higher education

Date Published: September 08, 2017

Publisher: AOSIS

Author(s): Desire Chiwandire, Louise Vincent.


South Africa’s Constitution guarantees everyone, including persons with disabilities, the right to education. A variety of laws are in place obliging higher education institutions to provide appropriate physical access to education sites for all. In practice, however, many buildings remain inaccessible to people with physical disabilities.

To describe what measures South African universities are taking to make their built environments more accessible to students with diverse types of disabilities, and to assess the adequacy of such measures.

We conducted semi-structured in-depth face-to-face interviews with disability unit staff members (DUSMs) based at 10 different public universities in South Africa.

Challenges with promoting higher education accessibility for wheelchair users include the preservation and heritage justification for failing to modify older buildings, ad hoc approaches to creating accessible environments and failure to address access to toilets, libraries and transport facilities for wheelchair users.

South African universities are still not places where all students are equally able to integrate socially. DUSMs know what ought to be done to make campuses more accessible and welcoming to students with disabilities and should be empowered to play a leading role in sensitising non-disabled members of universities, to create greater awareness of, and appreciation for, the multiple ways in which wheelchair user students continue to be excluded from full participation in university life. South African universities need to adopt a systemic approach to inclusion, which fosters an understanding of inclusion as a fundamental right rather than as a luxury.

Partial Text

Poorly designed physical environments exclude persons with disabilities (PWDs) from participating in mainstream society (DSD, DWCPD & UNICEF 2012:20). Wolanin and Steele (2004), for example, point to ‘curbs and stairs that cannot be navigated by wheelchairs or mounted by the physically frail; [the unavailability of] tactile maps for the blind, and no TTY1 phones for the deaf’ (p. 53). Lack of elevators, ramps, automatic doors, Braille signage and telecommunication devices are among the more obvious factors that deter and restrict the equal participation in various spheres of public life of PWDs (Gal et al. 2010:91). As Howell and Lazarus (2003:68) have argued, it is a central requirement of respect for diversity that ‘physical barriers that limit mobility and thus access to institutional services for some disabled students, especially physically disabled and blind students’ be eliminated.

South African universities have a long way to go with regard to putting into practice the on-paper commitments that the country has made to creating educational environments that are accessible and universally inclusive. The principle of universal design (UD) enjoins building planners, engineers, architects and the like to design ‘buildings that are suitable for all users’ (Imrie & Hall 2001:335) rather than taking the approach of adding to or adapting physical spaces designed for non-disabled people (Chard & Couch 1998:605). Environments must, as David Mitchell (2010) has argued, ‘be usable by the greatest possible range of people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for subsequent adaptation or specialised design’ (p. 13). The principle of ‘inclusive design’ (Chard & Couch 1998:607) moreover points to the need to make physical environments accessible not only to students of one type of disability but rather to those with diverse disabilities. Inclusive design has to do with designing environments in such a way that diverse people will benefit and have their quality of life enhanced by living and working in such environments (see Chard & Couch 1998:607).

DUSMs know what ought to be done to make campuses accessible and welcoming to WUSs among other SWDs. However, their structural position in universities often means that they are powerless to influence policy implementation in practice. The goal of inclusive education is ‘supporting students with disabilities to be involved with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent possible’ (Dalton et al. 2012:2). However, WUSs are still not being afforded full membership status at many South African universities and a lack of adequate access to such basic services as libraries, toilets and transportation makes it difficult for these students to participate fully in both the academic and social aspects of campus life and to reach their full potential. Often, resource constraints are invoked as the reason for why this is the case but, as Tania Burchardt (2004) has pointed out, ‘provisions necessary to meet the needs of people with impairments are demanded as a matter of right, rather than being handed out as charity to supposedly passive, grateful recipients’ (pp. 736–737).




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