By Dr Ashley Subbiah
South Africa has adopted significantly progressive legislation in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in particular articles 24 (education) and 27 (work and employment), to draft its national disability rights policy. This is evidenced in the white papers 6 (policy on inclusive education) and 3 (policy on transformation of South African higher education).
Essentially, the country’s policies speak towards the enabling of more inclusive and wider access to tertiary education, the addressing of systemic exclusionary barriers prohibiting the pursuit of and successful completion of tertiary qualifications and the improvement and quality of holistic support services in the development of highly productive graduates.
As highlighted in the 2020 Disability Online Research and Practice Indaba, which was themed “No Student Will Be Left Behind: Reimagining higher education disability services in response to Covid-19”, hosted this November by the Disability Support Unit (DSU) of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), the emergence of Covid-19 and the transition towards online learning in institutes of higher education has exposed the disconnect between policy and the execution of appropriate strategies for its implementation.
With increasing numbers of students with disabilities accessing higher education, particularly via the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) Disability funding instrument, it is key that disability services adopt strategies to develop and promote digital independence.
The largest cohort of these students are those with visual impairments. However, deficiencies in the basic education system has left them vulnerable in the Covid-19 moment and has seen many students left behind in the sudden transition to online learning.
Students challenges in accessing data, adequate network coverage, the requisite technology and having to work in non-conducive environments to aid in their academic pursuits, has been widely documented. However, a counter effect of remote working has seen reduced disability stigma and the need for disability disclosure.
As students entering the system have very limited exposure to technology and digital platforms in the basic education sector, a comprehensive level of disability services needs to be affected in institutes of higher learning to acclimatise students to the higher education environment.
However, comprehensive disability support provisioned to students in the form of academic reformatting services, charged with scanning, converting and editing academic material into accessible formats for electronic and tactile access to information, and sighted assistance, provisioning scribing support for note-taking and assessments, may be seen as further disabling students by providing them with support that they would otherwise not find accessible post higher education, as they transit towards mainstream society.
The emergence of the virus and the rapid transition to online learning, has seen students being forced to gain a higher level of digital independence that will see them leave the university with skills that will allow them to integrate into mainstream society and compete with their peers more equitably for positions worthy of their higher education qualifications.
For far too long, as the visually impaired globally have revelled in the rapid development of technologies to improve equitable access to information, South African visually impaired persons, even with postgraduate qualifications, have been side-lined to the margins of society because they have not fully embraced or had access to commercial and specialised technologies to aid in the integration into mainstream society.
Advances in the development of specialised assistive technologies has seen a wide array of options become available for the visually impaired to improve overall access to information and productivity in mainstream professional environments.
Electronic magnifiers with high definition cameras, optical character recognition (OCR) software and a host of audio-visual enhancement features, are now designed to be more lightweight and portable.
Electronic Braille note-taking devices have also advanced significantly, incorporating screen-reading capabilities, compatibility with commercial digital platforms and inconspicuous design, offering users tactile access to information in a comfortable and portable manner.
Assistive software such as screen readers and magnifiers continue to advance progressively to match the most popular operating systems utilised in all mainstream sectors, offering users total access to the digital environment through massively enhanced tools for productivity, a wide range of professional applications and seamless operation.
We have also seen commercial platforms embrace accessibility in recent times, with most operating systems offering proprietary accessibility components in their roll-outs.
The advances in modern smartphone technology have also levelled the playing field for the visually impaired, with most devices either carrying proprietary or third-party assistive software to allow total access to the digital environment.
It is worthy to note that with the emergence of Covid-19, we have become used to engaging on video-conferencing platforms for virtual meetings, as many of us have been working remotely.
Through the use of proprietary or third-party assistive software the most popular video-conferencing platforms utilised by many are totally accessible to the visually impaired.
There is really no electronic barrier to accessing information equitably in the modern era and these can easily be navigated by embracing the technology available out there.
Students at UKZN who have embraced virtual digital platforms since the emergence of Covid-19, have proclaimed that they would not be where they are today, were it not for the sudden transition to online learning.
They have attained a high level of digital independence and are participating on par with their peers, through the use of screen-reading and magnification software.
Most of these students have performed at a significantly higher level compared to their performance at a contact-based level, with comprehensive disability services in place.They now see the value of embracing technology and have a more positive outlook towards pursuing mainstream careers.
We are already seeing students rally for equitable access to information by requesting that accessibility be considered in the roll out of academic content, requesting that online platforms adopt more accessible modes of operation and demanding that no tailoring of curriculum is considered or implemented.
Their self-representative advocacy for the rights of persons with disabilities in mainstream society will see the changes that need to be made in South Africa become a reality.
* Dr Ashley Subbiah, who is blind, is the Information Access Officer for the Disability Support Unit at UKZN, where he is responsible for managing the reformatting and the South African sign language service. He is also responsible for providing instruction to visually impaired students on the use of assistive technologies.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL