In higher education institutions, there are still people who lack understanding of what disability is ‘because we still do not regard certain situations and conditions as disabilities simply because of lack of knowledge and also ignorance.’

This was the assertion made by Dr Roseline Laka-Mathebula, the Executive Director for Student Services at UKZN, when she opened the 4th Annual Disability Support Research Indaba held recently at Howard College’s UNITE Building.

During her address, she also pointed out that policies, academic programming and the design of the environment may exclude people with disabilities because of how the campus is designed and planned. ‘Security and all other support services should be geared into incorporating people with disabilities in their overall planning in Higher Education Institutions,’ said Laka-Mathebula.

The Indaba was organised by the UKZN Disability Support Unit (Student Services Division) in collaboration with the UKZN Research Office. The theme for the Indaba was Reframing Disability in Africa: Spaces for Reason, Reflection and Responsibility for Social Change and Transformation’.

Professor Urmilla Bob from the UKZN Research Office was one of the keynote speakers on the first day of the two-day Indaba. She spoke of the vision and mission of the Research Office/ University Capacity Development Programme (UCDP) in supporting the retention and success of postgraduate students with disabilities through research skills support. Aligning to this support, ‘Dr Laka-Mathebula is prioritising such spaces when budgeting for student services thus we can be assured that UKZN will continue being exemplary to other institutions as to how to create an inclusive learning and research environment for postgraduate students with disabilities,’ said Bob.

This Disability Support Research Indaba opened robust conversations and dialogue on disability, human rights and culture as shaping the experiences of persons with disabilities. Presentations recognised the critical trajectories of human rights and cultural practices as being relevant for human development and well-being for persons with disabilities in Africa. Dr Maxwell Thabethe and Mr Ayanda Ximba voiced their concerns on student experiences in relation to cultural myths concerning albinism and epilepsy and the ways in which these cultural myths result in stigma, disrespect and devaluation.

Other members of the panel included Mr Mongezi Zondo who spoke on the role of the Disability Support Unit at UKZN in supporting the human rights of students with disabilities, Mrs Thulisile Makhutle from the Epilepsy Foundation, traditional healer Ms Khethiwe Gasa and Mrs Lindiwe Ngubane from UKZN College Student Support Offices were also part of the panel sharing their experiences.

New ways of understanding human development in the African context brought together conversations on safe reaching spaces to confront human rights violations and stigma management. Ms Bongi Zengele offered a perspective on the transformation of faith-based organisations as a safe space to support the narratives of persons living with HIV and AIDS, disability and many other cross cutting social inequities. Other safe spaces were also noted by Dr Rosh Subrayen who said that learning communities offered critical spaces for the management and reduction of stigma for students with disabilities in their teaching practice school placements.

Many postgraduate students with disabilities presented their findings or work in progress papers relating to employment challenges, exclusions in Higher Education structures, normative approaches to teaching and learning in technology and the law curriculum.

Bob stressed on the importance of firm commitments by UKZN to support impactful research from the African continent as Africa is in dire need of finding solutions to the many social inequities and injustices experienced by persons with disabilities. Hence the need to support the growing cohort of researchers with disabilities. Ms Nompilo Nonzuzo Nene, in her presentation, highlighted the exclusions of students with disabilities in student governance structures and the need for power sharing arrangements through democratic participation and self-representation to promote the inclusion of minority groups in societal structures.

Students with disabilities showcased their various entertainment talents during a “Dinner with a Difference”. Mrs Margie Naidoo, the Orientation and Mobility Practitioner at the Disability Support Unit said that just like everybody else, persons with disabilities have talent which was clearly visible at the dinner.

The 4th Annual Disability Research Support Indaba concluded that we need to, through reasoning, reflection and dialogue, develop an Afrocentric model of disability, a model that recognises the historical, political, social and cultural realities in Africa.

Words: Nokubonga Nomasiko Jele and Roshathni Subrayen