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Rhodes University: The importance of creating awareness of Invisible Disabilities in Institutions of Higher Learning

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The Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA) defines an invisible disability as a physical, a mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities.

The Rhodes University Student Disability policy states that “the pursuit of equity is integral to the University’s identity, and the institution realises that its strength will be realised, and its reputation secured through its commitment to both equity and quality”.

The purpose of the Invisible Disabilities Seminar was to bring awareness to ‘invisible disabilities’. The Acting Manager: Equity and Institutional Culture, Ms Vuyo Baneti, explained that at the core of Rhodes University’s transformation plan is ensuring that we are a socially inclusive and accessible university whose staff and students’ practices are demonstrably informed by a deep appreciation of equity, social justice and redress. Disability Equity is entailed in the University’s broader pursuit of equity. Thus, taking seriously the experiences and needs of those who are differently abled and providing the necessary support is part of the commitment to transformation.

The Chair of the Rhodes University Disability Committee, Professor Tony Booth, expressed his eagerness to gain more insights into improving the University’s assistance mechanisms for its students and staff members with disabilities. He pointed out that out of the 8100 student population, only 18 have declared having a disability. This means that only 2% of the Rhodes University community have declared their disability, which is far less than the national average of declared disabilities.

This raises concern about how the institution can make it comfortable and safe for its staff and students to disclose and communicate their disabilities. The Director of Student Affairs, Mrs Noma Mrwetyana, explained how the DSA works to provide assistance and support for students living with disabilities. Currently, the DSA assists students with disabilities through assistive technology support in the form of computers with speech recognition software, reading and writing support software, wide screens, and text magnification technology.

Mrwetyana further explained the close partnerships that the DSA has with the Counselling Centre, Health Care Centre, library, and academic departments to provide educational and personal support to students.

A panel of specialists discussed what institutions of higher learning should be doing to be responsive and supportive of members living, working, and learning with invisible disabilities. Rhodes University student Mr Mbongeni Shabangu, who is differently abled, Head of Disability Services at Nelson Mandela University Mrs Nosiphiwo Delubom, Higher Education and Further Education Disability Associate at University of Fort Hare Mr Sam Van Muschenbrook and Ms Pasha Alden from the South African National Library for the Blind engaged the day’s theme – Defining Invisible Disabilities. The panel emphasised the importance of students and staff who are living with disabilities taking part in the disability units or committees that higher education institutions have in place and encouraging students to declare their disabilities.

The slogan of the disability rights movement in South Africa, “nothing about us without us” was a consistent theme among the speakers and captured the ethos which should inform strategic planning to better cater for and make the institutions more accessible to differently abled students and staff. Similarly, MSc candidate Ms Nandipha Ngani, who is living with an invisible disability, further emphasised the need to have students with disabilities sitting on the Disability Committee and whatever structures cater to people living with disabilities to address their needs effectively.