Disability inclusion in higher education-possible pathways


The World Health Organization puts the prevalence of disability at approximately 650 million people, with the majority of disability, about 80 percent of the population identified above, coming from developing countries (Karr, 2011).  In spite of this, disability is still not as integrated into mainstream development as issues of race, gender and ethnicity (Grech, 2011).  Disability continues to be relegated to the side lines when it comes to the aspect of planning and policy making. 

In response to this discrimination and marginalization experienced by disabled people, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with disabilities (UNCRPD, 2006) stipulated the necessity of including disability as a part of any plan for sustainable development. Article 24 of the UNCRPD states that it is necessary to provide adequate measures in educational environments to maximize academic and social development consistent with the goal of full inclusion, to:

“nurture receptiveness to the rights of persons with disabilities, and to promote positive perceptions and greater social awareness, fostering in all children and at all levels of education, the respect of people with disabilities” (UNCRPD, 2006:11).

State parties that are signatories to the convention have been mandated to make inclusive policies and allocate resources towards achieving this aim of mainstreaming disability across all sectors.

Following this mandate, the South African government has created various policies that support the aims of the UNCRPD which enshrine the rights of disabled people to equal participation in the society they live in. Some of the policies include the South African Integrated National Disability Strategy White Paper (INDS) (Office of the Deputy President, 1997), The Employment Equity Act (EEA) (South African Department of Labour, 1998), Education White Paper 6 on Special Needs Education and Building an Inclusive Education and Training System, (South African Department of Education, 2001). These policies strive to create a culture of respect, dignity, equal participation and access to resources for all citizens, taking cognisance of the unique history and diversity that exists within the South African context.

Although the issue of diversity is a topical and prominent issue within various Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), these HEIs have primarily neglected to include disability in much of the debate on diversity. Barnard & Lan, (2007:2) refer to this when they state that “…it is ironic that our vision of diversity is so limited that it rarely includes disability”. The authors go further to state that this minimal inclusion of disability and the voice of disabled people as an issue of diversity “is most notable in higher education curriculum” (Barnard & Lan, 2007:3). If students graduate without engaging with disability in the curriculum, and only perceive disabled people as needing help, how can disabled people be seen as equals by their peers? (Bryen & Shapiro, 1996).  Mathews (2010:527) proposes that one of the ways to mainstream disability, must be the inclusion of disability as “a topic, as an idea, as a category of analysis, as a historical community” within the curriculum. 

In a bid to address barriers and create a more inclusive culture, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), Dr. Max Price, guided the development of Strategic Goals that address current challenges in South Africa. UCT aims to produce graduates whose qualifications are internationally and locally recognized, supported by frameworks of values of engaged citizenship and social justice, while promoting diversity and transformation within and outside the institution (UCT Research Reports, 2008). The staff and students are from over 100 countries around the world, which contributes to diversifying the University. UCT has approximately 26,000 students, across six Faculties and Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) and the Graduate School of Business (GSB). 

The two strategic goals of 1) enhancing the quality and profile of UCT’S graduates and 2) expanding and enhancing UCT’S contribution to South Africa’s development challenges (UCT Strategic Plan, 2009) influenced the DIRECT Project. The aim of this study was to discover if disability is included in the curriculum and how this inclusion was occurring, and was framed within a human rights and social justice framework. A mixed methods approach was utilized and, based on the findings, certain recommendations were presented to faculties as discussed below.

The findings were classified under four themes of:

a) Understanding of disability - The main understandings of disability inclusion were related to the medical model or social model of disability. Lecturers with the medical model approach often taught on how to ‘fix’ and manage the impairment a person has, while with the social model approach, lecturers taught mainly on the personal, social and sometimes environmental barriers to participation.

b) Focus/practices of inclusion - Disability was seen as an ‘additional’ issue to be included and not a part of the disciplinary requirements in some faculties. This meant that disability was mostly included in an ad hoc manner, based on the lecturers’ interest. 

c) Policy context looked at what disability specific policy was discussed in class.

d)  Experience of inclusion - Academic staff faced a number of challenges in including disability and their understanding often influenced when and how disability was included in the curriculum. Added to these were issues of support structures available, time management and a high workload to mention a few. 

This study did not focus on disabled people, but focused on disability as a concept taught and researched within the curriculum, the study is aimed at mainstreaming disability. Therefore recommendations  given below came out of three areas- discussions with participants regarding what they felt could assist them integrate disability in their teaching and research, experience of the researchers as disability practitioners and relevant supporting literature on disability inclusion that has informed this study. The first issue to be addressed is the issue of attitudes. 


The attitudes, values and understandings that people have related to disability often influence how people engage with it. The deleterious effect of negative attitudes on persons with disabilities cannot be overstated as negative attitudes have been identified as one of the main barriers to mainstreaming disability (WHO, 2011).  Participants in this study often felt isolated and did not know other academic staff who include disability in their teaching and research. The participants indicated that the creation of an inclusive space that makes disability ‘visible’ would help them mainstream disability issues. This could be achieved by having yearly or termly workshops or seminars on disability inclusion. Interdisciplinary collaborations regarding disability would be encouraged as staff from within the University and other people from outside the University will be given an opportunity to showcase their work on disability and create awareness to address ignorance. This can impact on attitudes of people towards disability.  

These kind of seminars were planned and carried out monthly by the Disability Studies Programme to disseminate outcomes of disability related research and invitations were sent out to staff at the University and other HEIs. Presenters from HEIs and Non- governmental organizations (NGOs) were invited to share their work. The seminars created a platform for debate on current work, issues and policies related to disability. Postgraduate students from various faculties presented their theses and not only got relevant feedback on their research, but got a chance to network and connect to people doing work in similar areas regarding disability. In this way, attitudes could be impacted by building a community of practice around disability inclusion.

In including disability within the curriculum, faculties in HEIs need to strive for an understanding of disability that transcends the medical and social model and other ‘known’ perspectives for disability. There is a necessity to explore other frameworks for understanding disability, including indigenous frameworks that might be available. An example is the use of an African philosophy ‘Ubuntu’ as a framework for understanding disability within the African context. Ubuntu is an African philosophy or belief system that places humanness at the center of all activities or actions. The greater good of the collective is placed above any selfish individual aspirations, putting compassion and human dignity first (Malisa, 2011; Higgs and Van Wyk, 2007; Nussbaum, 2003). Using this philosophy, everyone is important, relevant and interlinked. In reducing others, we ourselves are reduced. So in not giving space to the inclusion of disability, we also impact on our own development. Hence interrogating disability from different perspectives would enrich the experience of diversity within the curriculum, which build a more inclusive and egalitarian society.

The University curriculum in this study had an array of diversity issues included in it by various departments; participants included at least one issue of diversity in their teaching and /or research, but often felt inadequate to include disability (Ohajunwa & Mckenzie, 2013). Disability was often seen as something one needed extra training for. It is important that disability is recognized as one of the issues of diversity, much like race, sexuality, ageism, culture etc. Disability is part of the state of being human. So in planning the overarching curricular of each discipline, disability should feature among the issues of diversity.  

Diversity also needs to be facilitated in the recruitment of staff with disabilities and potential increased intake of students with disabilities. The UCT Disability Services Unit supports this process by ensuring that issues of accessibility are addressed. Staff and students with disabilities are assisted to adjust to University life and the experience of being in an HEI is not only beneficial to the person with a disability. Research shows that this experience promotes an inclusive culture by contributing to the “personal development among nondisabled individuals” (May, 2012: 241; O’Connor, Kubiak, Espiner & O’Brien, 2012).

It is not only the personal development of the staff and students in HEIs that should be impacted, but the institution as an organization. The inclusion of disability in social responsiveness activities should be enhanced. Certain incentives should be given for innovative projects/service learning or research done in the area of disability as part of social responsiveness.

These incentives and support systems could only come about by the creation of progressive and relevant policies that encourage an inclusive culture.  University Leadership should be engaged on policy creation and implementation regarding disability. Participants in this study indicate that they included disability in an ad hoc manner mainly because of their workload and time pressures. Participants stated that because disability inclusion was not part of their disciplinary requirements, it was an ‘additional task’ they had to do (Ohajunwa, Mckenzie , Hardy & Lorenzo, 2014).  Engaging University leadership at faculty level could address curriculum changes that support academic staff that include disability because, after all, it is an issue of diversity.

This DIRECT study can be carried out in HEIs to gain a baseline indication of what teaching and research regarding disability has been done, or is currently ongoing at the institution. This will not only showcase good practice and assist with planning outcomes regarding disability inclusion, but also inform policies on disability. Linked to this issue of informing outcomes is the need to explore the perspectives of disabled students regarding teaching and learning within the institution. These perspectives will contribute to understanding of the lived experience of disability. It will also hopefully address issues of stigma and stereotyping, enhancing the attributes of the graduates of HEIs.

In conclusion, the issue of disability inclusion is not without its challenges and certainly needs to be constantly interrogated and revisited. The context of inclusion also plays a major role. However, there is a need for disability to be on the institutional, faculty and departmental agenda. This need is foundational to advancement and the sustainability of innovative practices related to research and teaching on disability. HEIs need to come to the realization that disability inclusion is not an issue of choice, but of human rights and diversity. Considering the resultant impact on graduates and the wider society at large, disability inclusion becomes imperative.


The authors would like to acknowledge the Vice chancellor’s fund of the University of Cape Town for their financial support of the project. They also recognise the valuable academic leadership offered by associate Professor Theresa Lorenzo in formulating and guiding the study. 

Chioma Ohajunwa is the MOOC Project Coordinator for the Disability Studies Programme, University of Cape Town. Judith McKenzie is a senior lecturer in Disability Studies at the University of Cape Town and convenes the postgraduate diploma in Disability Studies.

©Rodrigo Mendes Institute. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 2.5. The copying, distribution and transmission of this work are free, under the following conditions: You must credit the work as authored by Chioma Ohajunwa and Judith McKenzie and licensed by Rodrigo Mendes Institute; the use for commercial purposes is forbidden; the change, transformation or building upon this work is forbidden, except with express permission of the licensor.

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