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Losing sight an eye opener

- By Wits University

Would you willingly volunteer to ‘lose’ your sight? Well, nearly 200 people did exactly this and went on to declare that it was all worth it.

The first time initiative took place under the supervision of the Wits Disability Unit (DU), on the night that Johannesburg experienced its first spring rain accompanied by flashes of lightning and thunder.

For approximately three hours, the group was enshrouded in complete darkness as they sat down to have Dinner in the Dark. The event was organised by the DU with the aim of raising awareness around disability and raise funds for students with impairments.

The master of ceremonies Duncan Yates, the Learning Disability Coordinator, opened the event with a reminder that although this is a fun event he hoped the experience shifted physical and attitudinal barriers.

During the course of dinner, in which participants sat blindfolded with no light in the vicinity, it soon became clear the diners had subconsciously changed their habits. There were less conversations on some tables. “I can’t talk if I can’t see the person” remarked one diner trying to explain the silence that suddenly beset the table of ten friends.

The biggest challenge for the night was tucking into the three course meal. The starter was a cream of butternut soup with a homemade cinnamon ice cream served with a crisp cheese straw – which was well handled by most. However, each course increased in complication leading others to give up their utensils in favour of using fingers while a few simply opted to eat with the plate on the chin to avoid spills and wrestling food into the fork then mouth.

Andrea at Olives and Plates, had the task of designing a menu that would challenge the temporary loss of sight while enhancing the other senses (smell, touch/texture and sound). The decadent chocolate tart (Halaal and vegetarian option) was infused with pop rocks, a surprising thrill. The deconstructed tiramisu served on a miniature jug of warm expresso teased the nose and required serious thought before tackling.

The event was supported by Wits senior management, staff, service providers and external businesses. The engineering department at the University of Johannesburg also extended a sisterly hand to the awareness and fundraising initiative.

“For our first event, we certainly generated lots of interest,” said Dr Anlia Pretorius, the Head of the Disability Unit.

“To sum up some of the feedback comments, the event took people out of their comfort zones and was a humbling, memorable, enlightening and challenging experience all at once with not having the sense of sight for an activity (eating) taken for granted.”  

 The DU has 500 registered students that use its services.

Extra funding for disabled students

Pretorius said that it is more expensive for a student with a disability to study.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) offers bursaries to eligible students with disabilities to cover the costs of a first undergraduate degree. The fund also makes provision for assistive devices such as a wheelchair, Zoom Text software or a Jaws Reader and other support.

This support, is however, not enough.

“The problem with NSFAS’s funding is the criteria and especially the means test income. There are worthy students just falling outside of this who don’t qualify for any NSFAS funding. Since it is more expensive for a student with a disability to study due to the other extras such as assistive devices, care givers, sign language interpreters etc., they struggle to make ends meet,” said Pretorius.

The claiming process and cycle is an additional challenge for students.

“Students receiving NSFAS funding can claim for assistive devices through the same fund. This is once during their study period and only according to strict guidelines and amounts. This is in ineffective when needing to purchase more expensive assistive technology or when needing to pay for critical human support.”

A South African Sign Language Interpreter can cost up to R450 per hour. Multiply this by all the lectures attended and the interpreter, a key requisite, suddenly becomes unaffordable – even on NSFAS.

The funding from NSFAS for students with disabilities is also under pressure since many more public institutions now compete for the same funds.

The Dinner in the Dark is one small attempt to support disabled students. The funds from the event will assist to meet urgent student requirements. The DU is also keen to increase the number of postgraduate students with disabilities and has a huge task in meeting this challenge as even the biggest funder, NSFAS, does not fund postgraduate studies.

A bright future on the horizon

Construction has begun for a new facility that will house state-of-the-art DU offices. This has been made possible by a private donor as well as funds from the Department of Higher Education and Training. This space will meet the universal design principles to ensure complete accessibility.

A new position has also been created.  

“We ‘redesigned’ two positions that became vacant into a new position called Academic and Facilities Access Coordinator”.

Subhashini Ellan was appointed in this position. Her role is to support hearing impaired students with real-time captioning in the classroom (an alternative to SASLI, where spoken content is typed out on a laptop and then viewed in real-time by the student on an iPad). Her responsibilities also include keeping track of access; and supporting staff with disabilities to find reasonable accommodation within the work space.

The expansion of services compliments the Loop System installed in Wits lecture theatres in 2009.

The system is used by students with hearing aids. Its primary function is to reduce background noise and amplify sound from the lapel microphone used by lecturer. A permanent loop system was fitted in the Great Hall which is used for public events.

In an attempt to improve access, Wits is working with architect Hiten Bawa, a universal design specialist, to conduct an access audit of all Wits facilities. Once this is completed, Wits will prioritise the needs according to urgency and usage and then address the critical obstacles with regards to accessible buildings, sidewalks and pathways and all facilities.

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