University of the Witwatersrand – Johannesburg, South Africa

The official name of the program is the Disability Rights Unit (DRU) at the University of the Witwatersrand. The program was established in 1986 in response to the needs of students with disabilities who required assistance and support to access the university’s academic programs on an equal basis. The program has since grown and now supports over 1100 students with various disabilities, covering a wide range of disabilities such as visual, physical, hearing, specific learning, psychosocial, neurodevelopmental, and chronic illnesses. These equity groups were proposed by national plan/legislation, university’s internal policies, and in accordance with relevant academic and policy research. In recent years, the DRU has also expanded its support to include staff members with disabilities, collaborating with the university’s Human Resource Department.

The DRU engages in various activities to ensure equal access, inclusion, and diversity within the university community. These activities include:

  • Support and counselling for students and university staff,
  • Lectures, workshops, seminars for students, faculty and non-teaching staff,
  • Training courses for peer educators,
  • Public promotion (e.g. production of media content such as podcasts),
  • Fundraising events,
  • Improving physical accessibility,
  • Improving digital accessibility,
  •  Advocacy within the broader university environment and social media platforms.

The activities that had the most impact were support, accessibility and awareness raising and advocacy.

In addition to activities to support inclusion, the program implements binding policy (legislation), strategy/action plan, recommendations/guidelines and preventive programs to counter exclusionary and discriminatory practices at the university.

The most innovative practice was introducing DRU Adaptive Technologist. It was involved in choosing the most accessible online learner management system for University of the Witwatersrand to ensure all students with disabilities are supported and able to access the academic programme. It has created a seamless online process from registration to applications for concessions for students with disabilities.

The motivation behind establishing the DRU was to ensure that students with disabilities have equal opportunities to access the university’s academic programs. The program is driven by the principles of promoting human rights, creating an enabling and barrier-free academic environment, and enabling students with disabilities to fulfill their aspirations, talents, and abilities. The DRU is guided by policies that uphold these principles and advocate for the rights and inclusion of students and staff with disabilities.
The organizational structure includes the DRU Head, Adaptive Technologist & IT Coordinator, Academic & Facilities Access Coordinator, Neurodiversity & Mental Health Coordinator, Print Impaired Access Coordinator & School of Education Admin Officer, Sign Language Interpreter, Tests & Exams Officer (Admin Assistant), Accessible Study Content Provider, and Reception & Marketing Officer (Senior Admin Assistant). DRU’s Head and Adaptive Technologist sit on university bodies where decisions are taken about programme design and policy, and give input with regard to accessibility of learning material, learning platforms, teaching and learning, assessments etc. Additionally, other DRU staff sit on various other relevant university committees, ensuring that disability matters are always considered. Both the DRU and the university’s strategies, policies, and work plans explicitly mention diversity, inclusion, and equality. This unit can be considered successful for a number of different reasons: dedicated DRU staff members who are all specialists in their area and are thus able to support the student effectively, individualized service delivery, every student is evaluated and various support methods are discussed and implemented to ensure adequate support is provided to the student, support from academic staff who are willing to contribute and take hands with the DRU, dedicated policies.
DRU is governed by the South African Constitution, various legislation, disability policies for higher and further education.
One of the main challenges faced in establishing a successful program at DRU was the lack of knowledge people had regarding disabilities and its impact especially regarding non-visible disabilities. The main obstacles to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the programme include the ineligibility of students with disabilities to enroll at University of the Witwatersrand due to high academic entry requirements, as well as a lack of adequate support and opportunities in secondary schools for these students. The DRU’s funding primarily comes from the central university funds, including salaries and basic operational budgets. Additional funding needs are addressed through fundraising efforts. The funding for the program is relatively stable.
The programme follows a formal evaluation process. To assess its success, a range of quantitative and qualitative indicators are utilized. These include end-of-academic-year questionnaires to gauge the quality of support provided and user satisfaction, monitoring student results and output, and conducting regular evaluations of campus accessibility and the academic program. The evaluation data is collected through questionnaires, academic records, and interviews, ensuring a comprehensive assessment. Subsequently, the evaluation report is shared with line managers and responsible senior executives.

University of the Witwatersrand

Johannesburg, South Africa