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Enabling engagement

- Tamsin Oxford

Breaking down the perceptual barriers between students and people living with disabilities.

Deaf, sign language and hearing © Curiosity

The world was designed by the able-bodied. The stairs, the complex architecture, the office spaces and the access points – these simple things that are taken for granted by the able-bodied instantly sideline those living with disabilities. The office worker in a wheelchair who can’t reach the second floor or the sight impaired person who can’t easily navigate beautiful, yet complex, architecture, for instance.

These moments and structures add unnecessary complexity to lives that are just as dynamic and capable as those who are able-bodied. To change these moments and to shift perceptions, there is a need to break down the walls of perception that people have about those living with disabilities, so that the world adopts a more inclusive approach to people, disability and environments. This is the vision of the Wits People for Awareness of Disability Issues (PADI) programme.

People for awareness of disability issues 

Designed to transform perceptions, PADI connects disabled people to able-bodied students in a six-month collaborative relationship, effectively breaking down the barriers that limit engagement, understanding and friendship.

“To create an inclusive society, disability shouldn’t be discussed in isolation as a standalone topic – it’s not, it is as woven into the fabric of society as being able-bodied,” says Dr Victor de Andrade from the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology at Wits. “People with disabilities are often compartmentalised and it has become important to overcome this trope and to make disability as much a central part of human discussions and experiences." 

The PADI programme, developed by Sandy Heyman in 1987, is focused on getting people involved, in integrating the different aspects of people rather than compartmentalising them. The programme encourages students to interact with disability, not just in the academic sense, but by engaging with disabled people on a daily basis.

“Our entire profession is geared towards lessening disability,” says Ronel Roos, Associate Professor, Department of Physiotherapy at Wits. “It is extremely important that our students understand the different components that can result in disability and yet many of them may not have had contact with someone with a disability before coming to university. What PADI does is connect students with disabled representatives so that they become aware of the different components of disability and how they can contribute to the lives of their patients and clients." 

Humanising disability

At the start of their first year, students are paired with PADI representatives who have various disabilities like cerebral palsy or a learning or sight disability. This exposure gives students the opportunity to learn more about disability and how it impacts on a person’s life. The programme puts a human face onto the idea of ‘disability’ and transforms how people see and interact with disabled individuals.

“PADI gives students practical knowledge and experience, weaning out those who cannot engage with people with disabilities,” says Dr Dhanashree Pillay, Senior Lecturer, Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology at Wits. “I’ve seen such value from this programme. At the end of six months the shifts in perception and understanding are extraordinary. Many of the paired students and representatives become lifelong friends as the students stop seeing disabled people as different, but as people. 

The interaction between the student and PADI representative breaks down barriers, opens up lines of communication and removes many of the naïve perceptions that people have about those who experience disabilities. These are not physical walls that separate the abled from the disabled, they are simply part of who these people are.

“Disabled people have agency, they are not just the receivers of services and they can contribute just like anyone else,” says De Andrade. “They are not just the receivers of benevolence; they are essential to the fabric of society. This is why this programme, and others like it, are so important. They change the thinking around disability and help people transform society to be more inclusive and more relevant for all human beings.”

Digital Operating Systems for eHealth (DOSe)

Technology has opened so many doors in the world, it’s no surprise that it’s playing a fundamental role in shifting the boundaries of disability, and empowering those with disabilities.

Rubina Shaikh, Division of Pharmacy Practice, developed a mobile application for the visually impaired using intelligent technology and innovative thinking. The solution assists with medication identification and administration, helping those who are visually impaired to safely self-administer medications.

The solution not only helps them to maintain control over their drug regimen and avoid dosage errors, but it also provides them with information on the medication itself such as expiry dates and side effects. It helps people to gain essential control over their lives, giving them back a sense of independence and improving their decision-making when it comes to medical care.

It is another example of looking beyond the boundaries of disability and recognising that, with the right tools and support, those who are visually impaired can easily manage their own lives without limitations.

  • Tamsin Oxford is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 12th issue, themed: #Solutions. We explore #WitsForGood solutions to the structural, political and socioeconomic challenges that persist in South Africa, and we are encouraged by astounding ‘moonshot moments’ where Witsies are advancing science, health, engineering, technology and innovation.