GADGETS like the Kindle ebook reader and the IntelliPen Pro are cool toys for some students but for disabled Witsies they are a lifeline.

Assistive devices provided by the Disability Unit (DU) have helped Yusuf Talia to realise his academic potential. Talia, who uses a wheelchair, obtained his accounting sciences degree in 2009 and is studying towards a second degree, a BSc in physiology and psychology.

 The former SRC vice-president has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic condition which causes weakness in the limbs, hands and fingers.

“Carrying around textbooks is difficult. And turning pages. The Kindle is more lightweight and you can just scroll down.”

Talia, who is the national student representative on the Higher Education Disability Services Association, has visited other South African universities and says: “This disability unit is one of the best we have in the country. It’s one of the best-resourced.”

IT specialist Andrew Sam showed Wits Vuvuzela assistive devices like the Daisy player which reads Microsoft Word documents to blind or visually impaired students. The students can also make voice notes which the player inserts into the document.

Sophisticated screen reader software also makes the internet accessible by reading aloud the text on web pages. The DU also has four Braille display units – each valued at R60 000 – which convert the text on screen to Braille.

Sam also showed Wits Vuvuzela the IntelliPen Pro, a digital pen which converts handwriting to text. The pen was used extensively by Yumna Laher, a DU client who recently received a Mandela Rhodes Scholarship.

The DU is leading the university in the adoption of modern devices and software. It is currently the only Wits department using the Kindle for academic purposes, says its head, Dr Anlia Pretorius.

She says the unit was the first Wits department to use the ReadOn! software which is now being rolled out to other departments. The School of Commerce, for example, is using the language-skills software to help 1st year accounting students to improve their reading skills, Anlia says.  

The DU has always been ahead of the game. Officially established in 1986, it was South Africa’s first university programme for disabled students.

It was also the first to have a full-time sign language interpreter for deaf students, a full-time maths specialist for blind students doing subjects like accounting and statistics and a full-time learning disabilities specialist.