Original Research - Special Collection: Wheelchair-related topics for less-resourced environments

Wheelchair users, access and exclusion in South African higher education

Desire Chiwandire, Louise Vincent
African Journal of Disability | Vol 6 | a353 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ajod.v6i0.353 | © 2017 Desire Chiwandire, Louise Vincent | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 24 November 2016 | Published: 08 September 2017

About the author(s)

Desire Chiwandire, Department of Political and International Studies, Rhodes University, South Africa
Louise Vincent, Department of Political and International Studies, Rhodes University, South Africa


Background: South Africa’s Constitution guarantees everyone, including persons with disabilities, the right to education. A variety of laws are in place obliging higher education institutions to provide appropriate physical access to education sites for all. In practice, however, many buildings remain inaccessible to people with physical disabilities.
Objectives: To describe what measures South African universities are taking to make their built environments more accessible to students with diverse types of disabilities, and to assess the adequacy of such measures.
Method: We conducted semi-structured in-depth face-to-face interviews with disability unit staff members (DUSMs) based at 10 different public universities in South Africa.
Results: Challenges with promoting higher education accessibility for wheelchair users include the preservation and heritage justification for failing to modify older buildings, ad hoc approaches to creating accessible environments and failure to address access to toilets, libraries and transport facilities for wheelchair users.
Conclusion: South African universities are still not places where all students are equally able to integrate socially. DUSMs know what ought to be done to make campuses more accessible and welcoming to students with disabilities and should be empowered to play a leading role in sensitising non-disabled members of universities, to create greater awareness of, and appreciation for, the multiple ways in which wheelchair user students continue to be excluded from full participation in university life. South African universities need to adopt a systemic approach to inclusion, which fosters an understanding of inclusion as a fundamental right rather than as a luxury.


wheelchair users; higher education transformation; universities; built environment; accessibility; universal design; South Africa; students with physical disabilities


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