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Wits Disability Awareness Week a benchmark for other institutions

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Kayla De Jesus Freitas
September07/ 2017

Students and staff from the University of Zululand visited Wits to learn from the Disability Awareness Week.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, professor Tawana Kupe, Wits University Registrar, Carol Crosley, and SRC representative, Nontobeko Nkosi take part in the blind walk challenge.

Wits University’s reputation for catering to students with disabilities attracted students and staff from the University of Zululand to the annual Wits Disability Awareness Week, which was held from August 29 to September 1.

The four-day programme, which is designed to improve social integration of students with disabilities, was organised by the Wits Disability Rights Unit and the Disability Awareness Movement (DAM), a student-run society.

According to DAM’s vice-chairperson, Anna Chrysostomou, “Disability Awareness Week is about trying to get the message of inclusion out to the greater Wits community. The entire purpose is to get people involved and to demonstrate that people with disabilities aren’t as far removed as we are sometimes inclined to believe.

“I feel a lot of the time the greater Wits community doesn’t really interact with students with disabilities, so it’s important to get people to see the efforts students with disabilities have to make in their daily life on campus” said Chrysostomou.

According to Kwesela Chaebwa, former chairperson of the Society of Students with Disabilities at the University of Zululand, “We looked for institutions that cater well for students with disabilities and Wits was top of the list. We came to benchmark at Wits and look at how they cater for students with disabilities, so that we can introduce the strategies they have implemented.”

Dr Anlia Pretorius, head of the Disability Rights Unit, said that the unit is well-established as a department, which has been historically successful in raising awareness surrounding the issues of students with disabilities. “Wits Disability Rights Unit is known as one of the best Disability Rights Units in South Africa.

“I always say, support for students with disabilities is part of the Wits culture and fabric, but there is always room for improvement,” she said.

The week included a variety of events, such as a lecture on nutrition for individuals with disabilities and a panel discussion around integration and accessibility. The main event was a blind walk challenge hosted on September 1.

The challenge aimed to simulate the experiences of visually impaired students. Participants were blindfolded and walked from the Disability Rights Unit, on the first floor of Solomon Mahlangu House, to the piazza in front of the Great Hall.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Tawana Kupe participated in the challenge and told Wits Vuvuzela that it is important for individuals with decision-making power to participate and become aware of issues facing disabled students. “It teaches you quite a lot about what obstacles and lack of mobility people who are partially sighted or completely blind experience, something we take for granted,” said Kupe.

The programme was open to all Wits students and staff. It also included learners from high schools, such as Prinshof School for the Blind in Pretoria. According to Pretorius, “This can inspire and motivate the learners to work hard to get into university and to achieve their dreams.”

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Kayla De Jesus Freitas