(Published - 30 August 2019)
Monday, 2 September marked a significant day for the University of the Western Cape. It officially opened the Office for Students with Disabilities which has been moved to a new, universally designed space on the ground floor. The Office for Student Disabilities formally began operating in 1996 as a result of the foresight of Evadne Abrahams, who reflects on the journey:
In the late 1980s a student stormed into Evadne Abrahams’ office at the University of the Western Cape and threw his books on the floor.
“How am I supposed to do this test?” he said.
“Why are you so angry,” Abrahams - an administrative clerk in the Institute for Counselling at the time - replied.
“Can’t you see I am blind? They gave me a written test, I can’t read!” he exclaimed.
That sparked Abrahams’ journey to assist students with disabilities – something the apartheid regime did not cater for at UWC. So she made her way to the Athlone School for the Blind to have his test transcribed into braille.
The office has helped hundreds of students with a vast array of disabilities including hearing and visual impairments, chronic medical conditions, as well as learning impairments such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Almost exactly 42 years after joining the University, Abrahams has just retired as the manager for the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSwD). To this day she still has contact with that young man and many alumni who have graduated through this office, and who are very successful in life.
The new office was made possible through a funding partnership between the University of the Western Cape and the Department of Higher Education and Training. Abrahams struggles to contain her excitement about the new space. She never imagined that the young man she met so many years ago would change her life so dramatically.
“He opened my eyes to the plight of students who were seen as different - who were seen as not normal. I realised that this was the area in which I could do something. I was very active in the anti-apartheid struggle, but this was another kind of freedom I had to fight for,” said Abrahams. Currently the OSwD supports 212 students with disabilities, and the numbers are growing.
Abraham’s successor is Verushka Daniels, who emphasised that the significance of this new space lies in its universal access design.
“This means that the ground floor space is fully accessible for all students with disabilities, from wheelchair accessible non-slip flooring to height accessible fixtures in restrooms, and high-contrast tactile wall tiles for blind and visually impaired students. The finishing touches on the doors, walls and signage have all been specially designed. You’ll see high contrast colours throughout the office space to reduce any strain for visually impaired students and new emergency exits for wheelchair users and mobility-impaired persons. Our restroom doors are easier to open and door handles are lowered for the vertically challenged students. We also have larger test and exams venues to accommodate all students registered at the unit,” said Daniels.
The office provides an array of services, including converting academic material to braille, providing computer software for students who cannot write, and providing a conducive space for students to write examinations.
Laetitia Permall, Director of the Centre for Student Support Services, is equally excited about the new space - the first of its kind at the University. “We conducted a universal design audit and discovered that there are so many challenges that students with disabilities face. We used the recommendations from the audit to design this space. Physical access is the first step to changing the trajectory for access for people into other areas of society. The realisation of this space consolidates one of the philosophies of the University: ‘The doors of learning SHALL be open’, said Permall.
Carmen Loubser has worked in the office for 18 years. “Students often share things with me because I have a disability and they feel that I can relate. There will be obstacles. It will be hard, but we are here to ensure that it is easier for them to overcome those obstacles,” said Loubser.