National Association of Disability Practitioners

NADP Colleagues: Duncan Yates, University of Witwatersrand, S. Africa

June 07, 2021 Lynn Season 2 Episode 2
National Association of Disability Practitioners
NADP Colleagues: Duncan Yates, University of Witwatersrand, S. Africa
Show Notes Transcript

NADP works closely with our colleagues and  partners to network, share information and support our members. 

This episode finds Lynn Wilson from NADP chatting with Duncan Yates from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. We find out how disability support works in South Africa and their ideas and plans for the future.

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Lynn Wilson in conversation with Duncan Yates from the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Lynn: Welcome to the fifth in our series of NADP conference podcasts. These podcasts are a series of interviews where we aim to get to know our colleagues and partners and learn about their experiences working in our sector. Today I'm talking with Duncan Yates, Duncan is the Disability Rights Unit’s Neurodiversity and Mental Health Coordinator, from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Welcome Duncan, I hope I pronounced your university correctly. My daughter actually did her postdoc with you, I still struggle with the pronunciation.

Duncan: Hi Lynn, thanks for the welcome, and it's really nice to be here. Yeah, you got the pronunciation, just about right. That short common term for the university is Wits University.

Lynn: Yes, much easier I can usually manage that one but I thought I needed to give you your full title. Okay, can you tell us something about yourself, South Africa, and the University of Witz where you work now?

Duncan: Sure, yeah. So, I've been working at the Disability Rights Unit at Wits for the last 10 years now. I studied to be a psychologist, and then a position came up at the DRU for a learning disability coordinator. So, that position was quite interesting because, in the past, at Wits, a lot of the focus was on looking at the more visual disabilities like hearing, visual impairment, physical disabilities, and less focus on hidden disabilities like specific learning disabilities for example dyslexia. And then the focus was to look more into this, and I applied and came into this position. Yeah. So, the numbers have grown with awareness on less stigma in disability at Wits University so it's good to know that, over the years, we are supporting more students and more students are feeling comfortable to register with the Disability Rights unit and access the services we have on offer.

Lynn: Yeah, my daughter studied with you as a disabled student with hidden disabilities and really appreciated the support she received. So, I know it's good. How large is the University of Wits and have you any idea of numbers of the disabled students you support.

Duncan: Yes, so that's currently has around 40,000 students, so we are quite a large university. One of the larger universities in South Africa out of the 26 universities, and we have around 1100 students registered with disability at Wits,

 Lynn: We are finding from universities in the UK that we're talking about 10% of the student population, roughly 10% depending on university, are actually registered with disability units over here. So that sounds fairly similar. 

Duncan: Yeah. 

Lynn: Oh, that's quite a lot of students though. So how big is your team?

Duncan: Our team is, we have nine full time staff. So, we have the head of the unit, we have a receptionist who also works a lot with our social media awareness, job opportunities, that kind of thing and obviously with being online, over the past year we've, we've needed to use social media a bit more so that's been important. We also have a tests and exams officer that facilitates tests and exams, if students have concessions like extra time or need to use assistive technology with their exams. And we have an adaptive technologist, then myself as the neurodiversity and mental health coordinator. We have an academic and facilities access coordinator who works with academics to make materials accessible, and also just general access on campus. Our university is turning 100 years old next year so we've got a lot of old buildings. I'm sure, similar to the UK, the issues around wheelchair access and that can be challenging, so making sure any new buildings, obviously, have good, universal design. But yeah, she works within that area. And then we have a satellite office on another campus because we've got a few campuses sprawled around this area. And we also have a full time South African sign language interpreter. And lastly but not least, an editor that works on converting material to alternative format to make sure that all our material is accessible.

Lynn: That's really interesting because that's a kind of totally different structure to the way we do things in the UK. In the fact that we tend to have, well, two different ways. One is where the disability advisers are generalist and actually work with every student they come across, and no matter what the impairment is, or we have teams where there are a couple of generalists, but there are also a mental health specialist and neurodiversity specialist and autism specialist. But then they work with that student in all areas. So, for instance, someone who's working with someone who's a wheelchair user would be working on campus accessibility, working with them… working with the academics with them. So, it's a totally different way of doing it and I can see advantages.

Duncan: Yes, and obviously I think that we all are generalists, in our areas, as well as specialists. So, we work together as a team and where needed we tap into the different resources of the different staff to assist the students.

Lynn: Yeah, that's really interesting. So, have you always lived and worked in South Africa?

 Duncan: I have mostly lived and worked in South Africa, born in Johannesburg, after school, I did go over to the UK for a few years. I worked at a hotel on the coast of Dorset and then even worked in Oxford for a while. I found myself stacking books at the Bodleian Library at one stage,

Lynn: Fabulous!. My co-chair of the conference committee is at the University of Oxford.

Duncan: Such a beautiful University Yeah,

Lynn: So, whereabouts in Dorset were you? I don't know if you'll tell from my accent but my home area is West Country. So, I was born and brought up in Salisbury in Wiltshire, so I know the Dorset area quite well. 

Duncan: Yeah, I was in Christchurch. 

Lynn: Oh yes? Yes. I have relatives in Christchurch.

Duncan: The hotel was on the Muddeford Quay Yeah.

Lynn: Oh, lovely, lovely area too. 

Duncan: Beautiful area, yeah. 

Lynn: Well, you'll have to come back and visit us again when COVID restrictions have gone.

Duncan: For sure. 

Lynn: In the English system, students can study higher education at both colleges and universities. Is that the same in South Africa? Do you have that college and university system where you can do higher education in both? 

Duncan: Yes, that's correct. So, the South African system includes TVET colleges and universities. So, it would be the further education training colleges, and then we have 26 universities,

Lynn: Okay right. So, the colleges, are they just kind of further education or can they do higher education courses in them?

Duncan: It would be further education.

Lynn: Okay right. Well, it's really a kind of recent move for us, in the last 10 years, in which colleges kind of pair up with universities, and offer higher education courses on their campuses. 

Duncan: Okay. 

Lynn: So, we have a single system in the UK for applying to university called you UCAS. How do students apply to university in South Africa?

Duncan: Okay, so we don't have that kind of system in place. Students apply to the specific university. There are talks on going to get a centralised application portal, but that's not operational yet.

Lynn: Do students have an opportunity to kind of state their disability requirements on application. And if so, do they actually do then, or do they tend to wait till later?

Duncan: Yeah, there is space to disclose disability on application form, but many, many times students only disclose once they are accepted, and if they're having challenges. I'm not sure if that's the same that you experience in the UK.

Lynn: Yes. Yeah, our legal background is a case of giving students the opportunity to disclose at every opportunity they have. So we'll ask them on the UCAS form, then they'll get emails from admissions where ‘if you have any additional requirements please let us know’. And then when they get to the university in all the induction talks and things there's always opportunities and posters around the place to try and encourage people to share their needs, and I presume that's the same with you really?

Duncan: Exactly same yeah so we make sure to speak to every faculty, there's faculties at Wits, and in the Orientation Week, we do a talk, explaining the different kinds of disabilities and how to register with the Disability Rights Unit and where we are, and encourage students to apply as early as possible in order to get the accommodations they need.

Lynn: Okay, great. Now, I've no idea how this works in South Africa. In the UK, we have a department, a government department for education that underpins the support for disabled students, and then delivers an allowance called Disabled Students Allowance through the Student Loans Company. So, the universities have to be inclusive. But for those that need extra requirements and equipment and things like sign language interpreters etc. there's some government money for that individually to the students through the Disabled Students Allowance scheme. How does it work in South Africa?

Duncan: So, in South Africa, all support is done through the Disability Rights Unit or the disability services, and there's no fees charged to the students, and we also get buy in from lecturers to assist with accessible study material. And then as far as the government bursary goes, we have something called an NSFAS, National Student Financial Aid scheme, and this provides funding for asssitive devices and human support to students. As far as NSFAS goes, it used to be a loan, and things have changed with regard to that where it's now become a bursary. So, students who earn a certain amount of total income in the family, can apply for the bursary. And then, with students with disabilities, they've actually increased that, so that more students with disabilities can apply for this. And then, if the student does indicate a disability, then they get an additional amount for assistive technology of about 40,000, Rand, which would be about £2000, that they can use on assistive devices.

Lynn: Do you find that that works okay and does it work well? In the fact that I know, especially deaf students needing sign language interpreters and blind students needing some complex screen reading equipment etc. can run out or run out of the funds that are supplied by our government.

Duncan: Yeah, it's, it's certainly a help, but it's what we call in South Africa, the ‘missing middle’ where these students where the family earns enough money that they can't apply for this bursary, but they’re still not in a high income bracket, and then, we have to, you know, try and assist with companies giving bursaries and that kind of thing. So, we are often working with seeing what opportunities that are available and some companies have been amazing in the support they've given with bursaries to students with disabilities.

Lynn: That's really nice to hear. As I said, the university is expected to be inclusive and have courses so the majority of students can access them. Although some will always need some extra assistance. We hear a lot about inclusivity in the UK, it's the current focus of most conferences and things. What does inclusivity mean to you in South Africa?

Duncan: I think it, It means accepting people's differences really and that's something that South Africa has really tried to work on as far as race goes, as far as gender equity, LGBTI and disability. Just bringing awareness of people's differences. And, you know, I think in certain areas we've still got a long way to go. But we are, as a country, very aware of this and working on diversity as much as possible.

Lynn: Yes, it's interesting I was talking to one of our NADP Country Advisors in Northern Ireland a couple of weeks ago, and he was saying that they're very aware of inclusivity there because of the problems in the past with being split due to religion, and hearing you say the same thing with difficulties in the past with being split due to race. I think it highlights inclusivity quite a lot. 

The other term we're beginning to hear a lot about here is intersectionality. And it's certainly helping us to increase the understanding that one size does not fit all when it comes to disabled students. So, if you have a dyslexic student, then that dyslexic student is not the same as every other dyslexic student - depending on everything else that's gone on in their lives and their backgrounds. We found that it's really handy to try and insist on quality of support when we're arguing for government funds, and government procedures. If we're talking about, we really want quality because one size does not fit all. A standard package will not fit everybody. So, is that a term that's in general use in South Africa at the moment?

Duncan: I think it's picking up more use as the understanding of intersectionality is so important and especially in South Africa where we have so many diverse cultures. Working in disability, for example, you mentioned dyslexia. Now, if we look at dyslexia specific learning disabilities and socio-economic status. For students that end up going to a more privileged school in an urban area where they have access to an educational psychologist, they, might get diagnosed early on with dyslexia or autism or whatever, this may be. Whereas a student from a rural area where there is no access to educational psychologists, come to university and then they might not even be diagnosed. So, we need to be very aware of this, and there might be late diagnosis. Using screening tools from an early stage, to assist those students. For one example of intersectionality.

Lynn: Right, okay to change focus slightly here. We're finding that in the UK that some disabled students have really appreciated the COVID lockdown and learning from home, and others have really struggled. Mainly due to either their own social requirements or the way the university is actually handled online learning. So, has there been any really outstanding good practice from your institution that you can share with us?

Duncan: Yeah, I think the lecturers’ willingness to jump on board with online learning and adapting the teaching and learning, to ensure students can learn effectively online, has been amazing. At the end of last year we actually did a survey with students registered with disabilities to see how they are coping with online learning, and the majority of students responded saying that lecturers have been really helpful and willing to assist. 

And there’s also a laptop device loan program to allow students in need to have a suitable device to study with, which was a big project we undertook last year because not all students had laptops and now they had to study online. So, so that was really helpful. 

And there were also agreements with mobile networks, operators to provide free data to students and zero rating of websites linked to the University Teaching and Learning, which really helped students benefit, that couldn't afford the high data prices we do have in South Africa. 

I think, overall, some students have really embraced the online learning, the majority of students. And there's, I think, some students even fearing coming back to the normal way of studying now. So that's going to be an adaptation in itself but I think we can really learn from this too, to have a hybrid learning system, and in some cases, the use of online technology has helped many students with disability as well. So, moving forward, I see some, some good benefits from this.

Lynn: One of our sticking points with inclusivity in the UK has been online assessments, trying to do some online assessments, or different forms of assessments that are inclusive. And it was quite amazing the way lecturers managed to get online assessments for students at the end of last year when we went into our first lockdown. And we're really hoping we can encourage some of that to stay because the students have really appreciated the more flexibility with those assessments.

Duncan: Yeah, I think that's the key word is the flexibility that it's given students.

Lynn: Yeah. So, we've not been able to get away much in the last year and I know that you haven't either. And we've had big conversations about what we've done during lockdown, as to what we've taken up. I took up some wood carving last year and really back into gardening again now. Have you started anything new?

Duncan: Well, in July last year I became a father, so that took away a lot of time to start new hobbies but it's been an amazing journey in itself. What else have I done? I managed to go on a hike in March in the Drakensburg, and it was a multi-day hike, staying in caves, which was pretty cool. So, just, just to get out in our beautiful South Africa, we've just got so much to explore on offer here it's an amazing place. Yeah,

Lynn: I've been to South Africa twice. Absolutely loved it, love being out in the countryside. I found a little ornament that I picked up at an ostrich farm, the other day, and it brought back so many memories of being up in the mountains and enjoying myself there. Okay, right, a difficult one for you! What advice would you give a young disability or inclusivity adviser just starting out?

Duncan: I would say to just be open to working with different faculties and schools and departments, ensuring that students with disabilities are able to access the academic programmes, and don't stop learning to look at improving the toolbox of different ways of thinking about disability. I remember when I first started off, I didn't know too much about specific learning disabilities, but we started a conference, a national conference, focusing on that, and it was an amazing way to just get all the different universities together to start talking about it. 

Lynn: Yeah, that's great. One last question for you. I know we have people from South Africa because they're registering for our conference. Do you have any messages for them?

Duncan: Just to keep on doing what you're doing, and over this time I think we need to remember to connect more. Whereas we used to have meetings face to face. Now a lot of that hasn't happened. So, we've got, similar to NADP, the Higher and Further Education Disabilities Services Association (HEDSA). So, to utilise the resources and network.

Lynn: Okay, that's really great. Thank you so much for your time today and introducing us to yourself, your university in your country. We've really appreciated it. So, thank you very much.

Duncan: And thank you for inviting me. It's been great to chat with you.