2020 Disability Online Research and Practice Indaba
No Student will be Left Behind: Reimagining Higher Education Disability Services in Response to COVID-19 was the theme of the Disability Online Research and Practice Indaba 2020 hosted by the UKZN Disability Support Unit (DSU).
The Indaba featured international and national presentations, with delegates from Higher Education and the Public Sector taking part.
In the official opening address, UKZN’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Professor Deresh Ramjugernath, reflected on the important work being done by the DSU to provide support to students with disabilities. Ramjugernath said the rapid transition to online teaching and learning, along with emerging inequities, widened exclusions, especially for this cohort of students.
CEO of Higher Health Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia emphasised in his keynote presentation that Higher Education was vital for the development and growth of a country. Ahluwalia said there was a need to sensitise university management, academia, and the Senate, to take into account students with disabilities in Higher Education developmental plans. He highlighted the need for structured COVID-19 peer support programmes to enhance retention and throughput.
Practice intervention strategies presented by Dr Ashley Subbiah, from UKZN (DSU), highlighted the need for students to develop digital independence, through virtual instruction. Ms Chamalie Gunawardane and Ms Harshani Wasana Fernando, both of the University of Colombo (Sri Lanka), found that undergraduate deaf and blind students experienced Moodle exclusions due to language barriers and information inaccessibility, caused by the absence of sign language instruction.
In the living and learning session, Mrs Margie Naidoo and Mr Derrick Munyai of UKZN (DSU), highlighted innovative strategies to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission for independent and supported living arrangements. Professor Carmen Miguel Vicente of the Complutense University in Spain highlighted the need for a resource toolkit on mental health support and a structured tutoring plan for social work students with mental health challenges. While, in Nigeria, students with disabilities experienced significant levels of discrimination in their communities, said Ms Anthonia Ishabiyi.
New voices emerged from academics with physical disabilities in South African Higher Education Institutions. Dr Bronwyn Anderson of UKZN, and Dr Smangele Mkhwanazi and Dr Allet Moll, from an Open Distance Learning context, provided autoethnographic accounts of remote teaching and learning. This related to independent living, negotiating accessible home environments and the restoration of their dignity. Importantly, remote working reduced both disability stigma and the need for disability disclosure.
The panel discussion interrogated the transformative promise of equity in Higher Education and the urgent need to disrupt normative policies, to ensure that the “new normal” in Higher Education accounted for students with disabilities. Panelists highlighted inclusive pedagogies, specialised technologies, and new student funding arrangements, while Professor Maximus Sefotho, emphasised the need for an ethic of care and Ubuntu, to ensure that no student was left behind.
However, Dr Praveena Sukhraj-Ely emphasised that COVID-19 made visible the continuation and expansion of social injustices for persons with disabilities. The panel resolved for collaboration with the Minister of Higher Education, Vice-Chancellors, students with disabilities and the Human Rights Commission, to address systemic barriers and public health policies for more inclusive Higher Education.
Dr Roshanthni Subrayen said rich and robust dialogues on digital accessibility, living and learning arrangements and self-representation, exposed the multi-dimensional layers of discrimination and exclusions experienced by students with disabilities in the global Higher Education landscape.
Ramjugernath and Alhuwalia called on the Indaba’s organising committee to collaborate on resolutions emerging from this Indaba.