Start main page content

No longer a little office somewhere

- Refilwe Mabula

Wits' new Disability Rights Unit, will no longer be "a little office somewhere."

The new Disability Unit (DU) at Wits, will continue advancing the rights of people living with disabilities and strive to contribute to universal access to education.

The unit, now named as the Disability Rights Unit (DRU) was launched on Thursday, 7 April 2016 at its new location on the first floor of Senate House, Braamfontein Campus East.

Head of the Disability Rights Unit, Dr Anlia Pretorius said the unit previously used to be described as “a little office down there somewhere.”

“Many people now ask why have we moved up to the first floor, and I say, because we have moved up in life and we now have a rightful place where our students actually feel valued because they can see that the University really values them, as equal members of the Wits community,” says Pretorius.

Deputy Vice- Chancellor ( DVC): Academic and Vice Principal, Professor Andrew Crouch, a speaker at the launch said Wits became a trendsetter in institutions of higher learning when it launched its DU in 1986, providing access to education for students with disabilities during a time when they were marginalised from society.

The DVC added that the DRU will serve the needs of about 600 students living with disabilities, though he feels that the number could be higher.

“Not all of them declared on registration that they have a disability.”

Chief Director at Department of Social Development, Lidia Pretorius, who delivered a message on behalf of the Deputy Minister for Social Development, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu encouraged the students to utilise the facilities to propel themselves and to “return to the facility as owners of the economy to pave the way forward for the next generation.”

Design and facilities

The DRU was previously located on the ground floor between Senate House and Central Block, a noisy area with a large influx of people. This made it very difficult for students in wheelchairs to get in and out of the offices and also provided difficulty for them to concentrate during examinations due to high noise levels in the those corridors.

Architect, Gunther Wagner took guests who included donors, staff, current and past students on walkabout to show them how the design and facilities at the new unit would address some of the challenges students encountered at the old unit.

With automated sliding doors and height adjustable tables, the unit was designed in a manner which would improve the rationality of movement and with some of the walls sound proofed, improve concentration levels.

The overall design was also centred on the idea of keeping the unit legible and simple. The choice of materials used also contributed significantly to the design, such as rubber flooring to reduce injury in the case of any accidents.

“Conceptually, the design of the new unit was based on logic and clarity. From a university perspective, the design envisioned to break down the barriers that we have as a society and to make sure that the students are always a part of this campus,” said Wagner.

The importance of disability units

Sesi Mahlobogoane, Director Social Inclusion and Equity at the Department of Higher Education and Training who was one of the guest speakers said she was proud of the new unit that appeals to the call of the constitution to include everyone, including people with disabilities.

“Without these units, staff and students with disabilities are lost as to how to navigate their way,” said Mahlobogoane. She shared with guests why these units were so important:

  • They provide a safe space for students with disabilities to disclose their disabilities without fear of being discriminated.
  • They provide an opportunity for students living with disabilities to state their needs in expectation of being provided with reasonable accommodation.
  • They provide the service to both academic staff seeking to make learning material accessible to students with disabilities and to enable the unit to bridge the gap between the academic needs of the students and the institutions ability to respond to those needs.
  • Disability Units also serve as a source of reliable data in terms of the disability needs of the students and the capability of the institution to respond to those needs.
  • They provide an opportunity for the assessment of disability for those students unaware of their disabilities.
  • Without disability units students easily drop out of University. They reduce the number of students with disabilities dropping out of University through the emotional support that the unit also offers them.
  • DU have the potential to mobilise resources and the culture of institutions to enable participation of students with disabilities beyond academics.
  • They advocate the needs of students with disabilities for appropriate resources and assistive technologies.
  • They play a role in the development of norms and standards for funding disabilities in the post school education and training system.