Disability and Online Learning at UKZN – an Overview by Jessica Freedman

It is sometimes difficult to know what support is available for students with a disability/disabilities and how they can access the help on offer.

UKZN’s Disability Support Unit (DSU) assists a vast number of students with a range of disabilities, including visual and hearing impairments, epilepsy and arthritis, among other health issues.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic early last year and the nationwide lockdown which followed soon afterwards, the type of premises needed for online learning has changed dramatically.

With assistance from the Information Access Officer at the DSU, Dr Ashley Subbiah, some of the struggles currently faced by disabled UKZN students and the support available to them are outlined below:

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to entrench itself in our society, students with disabilities are experiencing new struggles which require novel and different forms of support. The transition from in-person learning to online learning impacted all students, especially those who relied on access to WiFi and devices on campus. According to Subbiah, these issues are exacerbated for students with disabilities because the University environment provided them with a space that was more conducive to learning than their home environment.

Another problem has been a lack of connectivity resulting in many students being out of contact which has impacted on their mental health.

A further serious concern is the computer literacy level of students who arrive at UKZN from the special school sector. Speaking on the issue, Subbiah said: ‘While the University offers basic computer literacy at entry level and the Disability Support Unit offers training for students with disabilities on assistive devices and software, the level of computer literacy of students was also a significant limiting factor in the level of participation of students in online learning during the lockdown.

With regards to premises available to students during online learning, Subbiah explained: ‘UKZN has employed the use of Moodle as its principal learning management system. Fortunately, it is very accessible for students using a wide array of assistive devices and software. This has seen online learning at UKZN provide an opportunity for students with disabilities to participate equitably as well as providing academics with a platform to supply students with widely universally accessible content,’ he said.

‘While the use of Moodle has been positive, some students may require time concessions to adequately participate on a level playing field and DSU Disability Coordinators on all the campuses are able to help in that regard.’

Subbiah said the DSU promoted a policy of advocacy and self-representation resulting in many students liaising directly with academics when necessary to have access to premises which enable them to participate fully in online learning. Furthermore, the Reformatting Service of the DSU had been integral in ensuring that students were able to access their information in formats available throughout this period.

‘A DSU Moodle page has also been established with a wide variety of basic computer literacy and online learning specific training materials and resources. This, coupled with the virtual instruction provisioned by the DSU Information Access Officer during the lockdown, has seen students participate fully in the online learning project, enjoying unprecedented successes in semester one, despite some of the challenges faced,’ he said.

‘The South African sign language (SASL) service also continued to provide ongoing support to deaf students at UKZN throughout the lockdown, albeit through the use of online platforms such as Zoom Conferencing, Loom and WhatsApp messenger. Nevertheless, this has also seen significant improvements in the overall progress of the students, despite no contact session over this period, and has led to some key developments in terms of strategies for provisioning a more efficient SASL service going forward.’

Academic staff play an important role in students being able to access learning materials. Said Subbiah: ‘Academics have been very willing to engage with the DSU in order to appropriately use the breadth of the accessibility features available on the Moodle system to supply universally accessible content to students with disabilities. The DSU has produced guides for the development of accessible academic materials and web-based content. A major success was the DSU collaboration with UKZN’s Information and Communication Systems division, to advise on the implementation of accessibility in the development of the University self-screening web-based application.’

Sabbiah felt keeping lines of communication open with the DSU to advise on accessibility related issues pertaining to online content would go a long way towards make the online experience a universally accessible and equitable platform for all students at UKZN.

Fellow students without disabilities also impact on the University experience of students with disabilities. Subbiah says the student bodies representing students with disabilities, such as the Differently Abled Students Association (DASA), must have representation within the Students Representatives Council to give them representation at that level and a voice speaking to the greater University community.

Transitioning to online learning has not been an easy task for all UKZN students and in this regard Subbiah advises students to take advantage of the opportunity to engage with online learning as much as possible through online forums.

UKZN aims to promote a more inclusive higher education environment as it looks forward towards embracing a new normal in education.

Don’t forget to reach out to the DSU for assistance. Their contact details are here. Dr Subbaya’s email is SubbiahA1@ukzn.ac.za.

  • Jessica Freedman is a journalism student at Rhodes University. She wrote this article in co-operation with the DSU.

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