Guinevere Philippa Shapiro| Photos by Michelle Laver
Every day at Rhodes University, a fraction of students and lecturers face difficulties on campus grounds. These are people whose disabilities are usually overlooked by those who are not well-informed.
The aim of Disability Week is to give these problems the attention they need, and encourage the institution to better understand them. Living and learning with a disability does not lessen life experiences – it is simply a different way of going through each day. This year, the focus has been on access to education.
Mfundo Lebaka, a social auxiliary worker for the Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA), was born deaf and has had to surpass many access barriers to study and become a teacher. He attended several lectures throughout the week, accompanied Asanda Katshwa. Katshwa, a professional Sign Language interpreter, translated lectures for Lebaka during class. Her presence was not at all disruptive, and it proved to be a productive learning space for the students.
“The main point of this demonstration is to show that we can accommodate deaf people in lectures,” Ian Siebörger, a Rhodes Linguistics lecturer, said in one of the Teaching Aids demonstrations on Wednesday. Regrettably, there are drawbacks to this – costs and availability. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to lobby the university to say that we need to be able to accommodate people like Mfundo,” Siebörger said. Rhodes currently does not accommodate deaf people by providing Sign Language interpreters, but Siebörger and others are working towards changing that for the future.
Lebaka gave a public talk on Thursday, telling the story of his life growing up as a deaf person. For most, it was a novel experience to attend a speech in which the speaker’s form of communication was Sign Language. With Katshwa interpreting, Lebaka talked about discovering Sign Language during childhood, and the trials he encountered at tertiary institutions with insufficient accommodation for people with disabilities. Even everyday activities – such as a visit to the shops – becomes a trial when people are not experienced or accommodating to those with disabilities.
After the talk, the audience learnt a couple of basic signs, and showed a keen interest in discovering more about both Lebaka’s and Katshwa’s life experiences, both having large roles in the Deaf community. Lebaka has stressed the importance of incorporating people with disabilities into mainstream organisations.
Fortunate Gunzo, Director of the Professional Development Centre at Rhodes, discussed disability on Thursday. She has worked for several years with a staff member who is visually impaired. She discussed how people with disabilities tend to experience their way of life separately from others, saying that a lot of people feel awkward about disability. “You don’t want to make [people] feel uncomfortable, or you don’t want to feel like you notice that they’re different,” Gunzo said. “So, you get a bit uncomfortable talking about it until somebody has made their situation open.”
Gunzo, among many at Rhodes University, is ready for the institution to become more welcoming to anyone with a disability. “I think people just need to realise that a person with a disability can still live a healthy, normal life and can still do a lot of things, maybe even more than what an abled person can do… if it can go on as a yearly event, I think people will become more aware of it.”