Opening universities to students with disabilities: University of Cape Town, South Africa

The Disability Unit at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. aims to 'mainstream' rather than follow the 'welfare model' and to dismantle the many barriers that inhibit students and staff who have disabilities or chronic illnesses, from participating equally and fully in all aspects of the University. Internet publication URL:



The Disability Unit at the University of Cape Town aims to ’mainstream’ rather than follow the ’welfare model’ and to dismantle the many barriers that inhibit students and staff who have disabilities or chronic illnesses, from participating equally and fully in all aspects of the University.

Our work in the DU is complex and wide ranging. And, as many of the basic facts have been explored in previous Reports, this Progress Report will place a special emphasis on the way our philosophy influences our direction, and the way in which it links us to other types of socio-political developments. It also identifies the way our methods of working diverge from some of the historical presumptions that have developed and which dominate work with disabled people. We will report on specific areas that we have worked in, primarily where they illuminate the role we play.


The general principle of making institutions ’accessible to, and conducive for all people to participate equally and fully’ in terms of gender and race is now part of the fabric of our society. However, there has not yet been a firm commitment in South Africa to creating equality in our society for people with disabilities. Moreover, the process of how a society addresses the backlog of numerous barriers that prevent such participation is still in its infancy.

The rate at which the process of dismantling discrimination can occur, depends on the intransigence and synergistic reactions of many components. They range from historical circumstances and historically patronizing social attitudes, through to existing structures. Very often, barriers are so subtlety hidden from society and to the institution itself, that only when they are challenged by a person’s desire to confront them do they receive attention.

As in other parallel discriminatory acts, it is not enough for the institution simply to state the desire to be non-discriminatory and inclusive; neither does it create long-term and meaningful change simply to use quota systems as attempts to ’fulfill’ the objectives of ’equal rights and participation’. As in other fields of anti-discrimanatory activity, the achievement of ’equal participation’ necessitates meaningful changes to internal structures, and not simply a provision of separate services supposedly designed to ’make the life of a disabled person’ (the person discriminated against) more tolerable.

Most legislation informs of a RIGHT TO ACCESS and a right ’not to be discriminated against’. In the case of disability, if any legislation is to be at all meaningful, this ’right’ has to include a process whereby the achievement of non-discrimination can be both understood as well as obtainable far beyond access for the individual.

The DU believes that if meaningful participation is to be achieved, then development and structural change of the institution as a whole must occur.

Because of its complex and integrative nature, this process requires the support of the Executive if it is to succeed. It must not be marginalised.


Acting as the interface between students and staff with disabilities, and the University, the DU facilitates changes in attitude, the built environment, communication skills, translating material, and most importantly, the creation of knowledge and skills for staff and student needs that are required within the University mainstream. While this sometimes may not be achievable without the provision of specific services, it is most certainly our stated intention and goal to achieve the necessary institutional change. If we were only to provide special services, we would persist in perpetuating the situation where people with disabilities continue to be treated as ’welfare recipients’.

Aiming to create equal opportunity, our method is to decentralize so that the existing structures cater equally for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses within the mainstream. This is, of course, not possible in all situations; particularly at the start of any new area of work.

As we believe that the existence of someone’s particular disability or chronic illness does not, in itself, mean that they will, or necessarily, experience discrimination, neither do we expect people to disclose their condition. Accordingly, we have no screening process whereby we collect such data (a lesson the world has had to learn from those who are HIV positive, or who have AIDS). Thus, in our attempt to take the focus OFF the individual with a disability, (who in the past has always been seen ’as the problem’), we insist on adherence to a policy that no staff or student HAS TO ’belong’ to the DU. We work instead on referral or on individual choice. My experience has been that any request of people with disabilities to categorize themselves as ’disabled’ leads to discomfort, ’hiding’ and, consequently, to inaccurate information. Any records we keep concerning students or staff are purely for contact and communication purposes.

While in the short term we might overlook some people on their entrance into the University, within the broad framework of ENABLING PEOPLE TO PARTICIPATE EQUALLY, we feel that our policy:
  • serves to take the focus off the individual, and aims it at the institution, where it belongs;
  • means that our education at the student/staff interface (Faculties, Departments and numerous mainstream services) has to be THE focus;
  • allows each individual the right to privacy and to "get on with their life" if they are well integrated.


In practice the DU works with different sections of the University, feeding into existing structures which ordinarily provide services for any part of the University Community. These range from faculty registration and administration, academic teaching and supervision, communication, venue allocation, buildings and structural services, technological services, financial aid, student housing, health and counselling services, extra time in examinations, parking, and any other facet that presents as a long- or short-term barrier to full and equal participation of people with disabilities.

Our role is to help University structures to understand how to provide those same services that they ordinarily provide, rather than to provide equal and/or parallel services, separate from the mainstream for those University staff and students with disabilities. The DU might, in some cases, temporarily, provide part, or all, of a service until we understand enough of how this is achieved. Our policy then, is to pass on this knowledge or responsibility to the specific part of the University, or in some cases directly to the disabled person. In other situations we may continue to provide one aspect of a service, for example, Special Parking or Extra-time in examinations. Here, we interview the disabled person and assess the professional documentation concerning their disability. We then make recommendations to the appropriate section of the University.

In the case of specialised services, we will not, for instance, consider setting up a computer laboratory that is specialized for students who are partially sighted or blind, or who have another disability. Rather we aim at all times, to integrate such students with a disability into regular computer laboratories, taught by those tutors who would ordinarily teach in the mainstream. We do, however, see an occasional need for our staff to undertake specialized tutoring, but such tutoring would be focused on the mainstream tutors per se, rather than on individual disabled student/s. Likewise we will not allow ourselves to be forced to set up special wings in Residences for wheelchair users for this is simply perpetuating the commonly held misconception that people with disabilities need to be catered for separately. Thus, our aim is to create as much accessible accommodation in as many Residences as possible.

Such beliefs and practices can have adverse funding implications, particularly as some Donors want to present money ’for a specific and highly visible project’. This is very unfortunate for, in effect, it coerces Units like ours to advocate "separate facilities" instead of going the long road of making the mainstream facilities accessible. In this regard, it is important that Donors and Universities alike see the dangerous parallels between providing ’separate facilities’ for people with disabilities, within an institution, and our dreadful recent history of Apartheid.

Institutional change is, by nature, extremely complex and therefore is a slow process. As such, progress is not easily measurable by the individual’s experience at a particular time, rather it has to be measured collectively, over time.


We are often asked to ’define disability’, or are asked ’what numbers of disabled people’ we work with. I strongly refute such questions as they imply a reality of the many ’fixed’ definitions of disability as well as perpetuating the notion that there are ’fixed’ percentages of people with disabilities present in the population. Rather, I agree with Irving K Zola’s statement (1993, 18), that the reality of disability revolves around the fact that the question "... is not whether but when, not so much which one but how many and in what combination", disability occurs, and that:
"Disability is thus not a fixed status but a continuously changing and evolving set of characteristics" (1993, 24).

Zola goes on to say:
"Any use of a specific and fixed figure for any planning, whether it be in the allocation of resources, benefits, funding, or affirmative action, is almost certainly inaccurate as well as underestimated." (1993, 19).
The oft quoted ’findings’ that some 12.5% of the population have a disability is as dangerous as it is erroneous, and to base some argument about the experience of disability on such figures is utterly spurious. One is only able to obtain answers to those questions that one actually asks. Thus, if one asks flawed, simplistic questions, one will inevitably receive flawed, simplistic answers. (As is often said in computer jargon, ’garbage in, garbage out’!).

Zola’s statements about disability statistics and definitions, then, might in part provide an understanding as to why I will not participate in the ’numbers game’ in order to justify our services. Our belief is that while inequality exists for some of our students and staff, who happen to have a disability, or who live with a chronic illness within the University and the community, the work of the DU needs to continue apace.
We deal with numerous students and staff with longterm and/or temporary disabilities, including wheelchair users, people with walking disabilities, people with pain and fatigue disabilities, people with sensory disabilities or epilepsy, people with chronic illnesses (eg. cancer, AIDS, ME, Mycenia Gravis, etc) and this year we have started to work with students who are head injured.


In working with individual people with disabilities, our role is to listen carefully to their experience of different barriers, and then to initiate ways of changing the effects of these barriers in our University community. This, in part, involves serving on various committees and communicating with a wide variety of individuals and sections of the University about what we do. Understanding the structures of the institution enables us to act decisively and continuously in order to counteract disadvantage when and where it occurs. I firmly believe that every conversation which I, or my staff, have with another member of our University community, has to play this educative role, at least in part.

There are enormous variations between University departments. For instance, because of a combination of social attitudes and specific academic or professional requirements, one department might be perfectly comfortable with the presence of a person with a particular disability, while another, because of these same elements, might find it very difficult to see its way to making accommodation for a particular student.

Our role in the DU has not necessarily been to insist outright that all Departments simply take disabled students, but rather, it has been to undertake appropriate research (which might be global in scope) in order to try and find examples and experiences of people with similar disabilities in similar professional fields. Having done this, we try to initiate international communication, and examine the way in which other Universities or Colleges have overcome the specific barriers that our department has ’identified’. In such cases, we either link our department directly with the appropriate international community, or we liaise between the two. In this way we make use of experienced people in different cities or countries as a resource for our own University, whilst simultaneously enlarging the DU’s own data base.

This process can take many years, depending on how complicated the barriers are, but at all times our role is to work through this process with the individual student/staff (and possibly their family) as well as with the UCT department and faculty. In this way, we involve as many people as possible in the process of learning, including the Equal Opportunities Officer at UCT. Once a second student, with the same disability, applies to the same department, the learning curve is much lower and the time-consuming, intense and complicated process of research and translation of experience and knowledge can more easily be put into effect.

While people with certain types of disability might not realistically be able to enter certain disciplines, historically limits have frequently been too rigidly defined. We believe there is a real need to support and research the possibilities of disabled students choosing disciplines which previously had been barred them.

A few examples include deaf students in Occupational Therapy and Physiotherapy, a blind student applying for Clinical Masters in Psychology (involving Neuropsychology), and a quadriplegic wheelchair-user doing Drama. Another area under investigation has been the feasibility of head-injured and spinal-injured students returning before their "normal" expected rehabilitation has been completed.

It is always the first generation of students with particular disabilities in specific departments that need to undergo the most rigorous investigation, and who have to meet certain criteria before they are accepted and can get on with their studies in the mainstream. However, I have no doubt from my twenty years of experience in Universities that every student who is a trailblazer in one particular department, or field of study, creates a much easier path for the next generation.


Our Barrier Free Design work has two components:

1. New buildings:

This generally involves work with outside architects, and is a chance to educate architects more broadly, over and above the design of a particular UCT building. Our intention is that they will ultimately take both the general awareness and the knowledge gained into their work outside the University.

However, although it is nearly ten years since the Barrier Free Design legislation was first passed, it is my experience, that because it is such a complex and detailed field, and one that is out of the ordinary experience of most architects, without a consultant many architects still do not interpret the specified details correctly, wasting both time and money and causing frustration and hardship.

2. Existing buildings:

Together with the Planning Unit we are involved in investigating all existing University buildings and their environs in order to make them accessible to people with different disabilities. This is a complex, time-consuming and very intensive task, and each building and its environ has to be investigated in its own right. It is undertaken on three fronts:
  • whenever renovations are undertaken in a building and environ;
  • in response to a student or staff member requiring access to particular area;
  • high profile/used, public areas.


We continue to undertake the assessments and recommendations for all staff and students with temporary and permanent disabilities.


In 1994 I was involved in a committee of the University that undertook to develop a Policy for Extra Time in Examinations and Practicals. One of the aims of this Policy was to enable the University to provide facilities for students with a very wide range of disabilities. The policy has now been operating successfully for the whole of 1995.

Our involvement encompasses those students whose disabilities necessitate either alternate methods of undertaking examinations and/or extra time. This process can involve us in extensive assessments of individual students, in conjunction with departmental requirements for the examination. We closely liaise with the Student Health Service in order that they, or we, can make recommendations to the University Administration as to the appropriate means of examination.


We continue to be involved with student applications for bursaries from the Department of Labour. We also advise both the Department and the University on specialized academic expenses which students with disabilities incur.


We have developed a good working relationship with the Residence Administration and Maintenance Department, working towards accessible housing for disabled students. Our residences are old and far from main campus, and this can be a difficult issue.


We continue to research ways in which we can provide access transport to physically disabled students.


We find that we are sharing basic primary-health and stress-reduction information with more and more temporary and permanently disabled students. We coordinate our activities with those of the Student Health Service.


The counselling that I am involved with is often very focussed. Because of my position as Vice-Chancellor’s Nominee on Sexual Harassment, I find that I am also involved in counselling additional problems relating to sexual harassment and physical abuse.

One of my fundamental beliefs in counselling at the level at which people like myself serve, is that an enormous amount is done within the context of trying to empower the individual to continue functioning with more strength in the community. In this context, I find that I am also very often involved in counselling the support groups of affected individuals, be they families or networks of close friends or colleagues. I feel that this aspect is important as it, again, not only takes the emphasis and pressure off the individual, but serves to share skills with a wider group of people who very often would not have identified themselves as being in a ’counselling’ role.


I continue to work in HIV/AIDS education. We are gradually building up the AIDS Education Work Group’s Resource Center which is coordinated by the DU.


Having become more active in the field of Sexual Harassment on UCT campus, in 1994 I attended a course on counselling. In 1995 I was appointed one of the Vice Chancellor’s two nominees on Sexual Harassment. In this capacity I have been involved in the ’Informal Executive’ of the Sexual Harassment Prevention and Support Service (SHARPSS). SHARPSS is involved with a broad range of activities, such as counselling, education and advocacy. I have also been involved in the development of University Policy on Sexual Assault and Rape, and have recently completed an Introductory Course on Mediation.


Deaf Students
  • At present the DU is not in the position to be able to fund interpreters for deaf students. However, during the last two years we have been able to accept, into various departments, deaf and partially deaf students who communicate orally.

  • In reference to earlier discussion, (page 7), deaf students have necessitated particularly intensive research in regard to their choice of professional training.

Blind Student Reading Programme (BSRP)
  • We continue to run a service which translates the printed word (for academic purposes) primarily onto audio cassettes, but also sometimes into Braille.

  • We continue to keep up to date with the most recent ’blind-access’ technology, and explore ways of introducing it into the mainstream of the University. This is a vast, swiftly moving field, that requires great commitment in order to keep abreast of it, so as to be able to keep the University informed.


In the 1990’s we are witnessing high levels of social violence, abuse of alcohol and motor vehicle accidents. This, together with medical technology’s ability to keep people who would otherwise have died alive, has meant that we are seeing students who have had head injuries (HI) wishing to return to tertiary education. As many traumatic brain injuries affect the very aspects of a person that tertiary education is reliant on, the issues of when, or if, a student is able to return to University are extremely complex.

This year the DU has been involved in a great deal of research, communication and dissemination of information about head-injured students. We have worked closely with individuals, families and friends as well as faculties, departments and the service structures affected by a number of returning HI students. In some instances, we have had to set up trial models of support and investigation, in order to assess the complex relationship between a HI student and the University.



Due to overload of work this year I brought in disabled colleagues from the community to undertake some of my teaching. This has proved to be an important means of giving a new generation the chance to broaden their expertise.


We run an extensive library on issues of disability and chronic illness. This resource is used by a variety of staff and students in both our own and other universities, as well as people from the community. Running this resource involves an enormous amount of work. While we are able to keep up with some of the demands in less busy times, we have to impose many unfortunate limits on potential developments and networking.


As well as the academic work which I formally supervise, we advise many students undertaking work on disability and AIDS-related issues. It has been particularly interesting to be involved with students undertaking new areas of research. For example, the integration of disabled people in the environment.


I would like to take this opportunity formally to thank my staff, without whom I could not undertake such work. The positive and productive interplay of personalities that has built up in the team in the last three months, and the enormous individual and communal committment each staff member has, has been an absolute delight and pleasure to work with. My warm thanks to everybody as individuals and for making an effort to work so hard and take so much responsibility as a team in the DU.

"At all times our aim is to enable staff and students with disabilities and chronic illnesses to participate equally in the mainstream of the University, and not to provide special and separate facilities for them".
Kathryn Jagoe Ph D (hc)


Zola, I K (1993) Disability Statistics, What We Count and What It Tells Us. A Personal and Political Analysis. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, Vol. 4 (2), 12-39: Department of Sociology, Brandeis University, U.S.A.