Students with disability, the disability unit and lecturers' narratives of disability within a tertiary institution.
The purpose of the study was to explore the narratives of disability among students with disabilities, lecturers and the Disability Unit (DU) within a tertiary institution with a view to better understand their experiences and required initiatives to address the challenges of disability within a tertiary institution. Understanding how students with disabilities within a higher education context perceive and experience disability as well as how key players, namely lecturers’ and DU staff, who influence that experience is important in providing a truly inclusive environment for all within a tertiary institution. A review of the literature highlights that despite enabling legislation, in many South African Higher Education Institutions students with disability still experience many barriers to learning. The study drew from three theoretical frameworks in understanding participants’ narratives, namely social constructionism, feminist disability theory and a Foucauldian perspective. A qualitative study was conducted among 24 participants, who were purposively sampled and consisted of students with disability (N=12), disability unit staff members (N=7) and lecturers (N=5) within a South African tertiary institution. Semi- structured interviews and biographical questionnaires were used to collect the data which was analysed using thematic analysis. The findings indicate that dominant representations of disability that exist within the tertiary context are disempowering and understand different embodiment, as less. There is a strong emphasis on students having to adapt in a tertiary context. Through normalisation mechanisms of the ‘gaze’, through engagement with the non- disabled and through the language used when speaking about students with disability, dominant understandings are perpetuated and internalised. Consequently, many students with disability modify their behaviour and act in ways to fit in and disassociate with being disabled. Further, many believe that they have to take ownership for their disability and manage it. These disempowering representations are reinforced by inadequate infrastructure, resources and clear processes that limit accessibility to students with disability. This lack of consideration has a normalising function which gear students with disability to adapt and regulate themselves to fit in. The need for awareness and education, improving engagement with key stakeholders and improving integration were understood as important initiatives that the tertiary community should consider. Through these initiatives, opportunities to create positive representations are opened, which provide moments for students with disability to create more accepting representations of self with disability when interacting with the non-disabled and challenge dominant disempowering understandings of disability. The current study highlights the need for creating spaces and engagement within a tertiary institution that celebrate and create positive representations of disability.
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