Experiences of Students Living with Disabilities in Higher Education Institutions of Learning

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Published on International Journal of Social, Politics & Humanities
Publication Date: May 1, 2019

S’lungile K. Thwala, Abahle Thwala & Siphiwe P. Gumedze
Senior Lecturer, Department of Educational Foundations & Management, University of Swaziland
Librarian Assistant, University of Swaziland
Lecturer, Ngwane Teacher Training College
Eswatini, Swaziland

Journal Full Text PDF: Experiences of Students Living with Disabilities in Higher Education Institutions of Learning (A Case Study in the Manzini Region of Swaziland).

The purpose of the study was to gain an in-depth understanding of the lived experiences of students living with disabilities in higher education institutions in the Manzini region of Swaziland. Exploring the challenges they everyday face when trying to participate in every day activities of the university. The study employed qualitative research methods. A multiple case study design was used to investigate the experiences of the students with disabilities in institutions of higher learning. Through a purposive sampling a total of 20 students living with disabilities from three higher education institutions were selected. Focus group discussions and individual interviews were used for data collection. Findings of the study revealed that accessing higher education does not ultimately result in inclusion and fully participation for students living with disabilities, complex challenges still exist. The study concluded that the inaccessibility of infrastructure is one of the most central barriers to the provision of tertiary training to these students. The study recommended that the Ministry of Education and Training should consider working towards amending and incorporating specific guidelines on inclusion in tertiary institutions in the Education Sector policy.

Keywords: Case study, disability, experiences, focus group, higher education, institutions, inclusion, students, Swaziland.

Global mystification of higher education can mask unequal and uneven participation rates. Students’ enrolment worldwide rose from 13 million in 1960 to 137.8 million in 2005. Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced the highest average regional growth rate in higher education (UNESCO, 2006). This gives a reflection that education is very important for every person regardless of his/her age, gender, race, economic status, as well as physical ability or disability. The right of access to higher education is mentioned in a number of international human rights instruments (Duta, Scguri-Geist, & Kundu, 2010). In many parts of the world, institutions of higher education purport to provide equal access and reasonable accommodation, but students living with disabilities still face discriminatory policies and practices (Teachability, 2012).
Previous research regarding completion of postsecondary programs reveals that students with disabilities are less likely than peers in the general population to graduate (Newman et al., 2011). Hart, Grigal, and Weir, (2010) assert that receiving appropriate supports and accommodations is one factor related to the success and persistence of students with disabilities in postsecondary programs.
The Swaziland Education and Training Sector Policy (2010) states that all children must have education regardless of any disability. A rights approach to education, by contrast, highlights the need for a holistic perspective, requiring a framework that takes into consideration not just the right of access to education throughout all stages of childhood and beyond, but also the right of quality education and the right to respect in the learning environment. This therefore means the institutions of higher learning should be inclusive and reflective of individual circumstances of students with disabilities. The inclusive of education is ambitious and far reaching notion that is, theoretically, concerned with all students. The concept focuses on the transformation of school cultures to increase access of all students, enhance the school personnel’s and students’ acceptance of all students, maximize student participation in various domains of activity, and increase the achievement of all students (Kalambouka, Farrell, Dyson, & Kaplan, 2005).
Although inclusion has been at the core of teaching and learning in higher education for quite some time, universities are still afar from becoming truly inclusive (Makoelle, 2014). Most of the challenges are due to contradictory factors in the process of pursuing institutional educational excellence. Makoelle and Kioko (2014) observe that institutions of higher education have responded by developing new policy agendas and cultural transformations to create a welcoming environment for disadvantaged and disabled students. However, institutions respond is differently to external pressures, and extent to which changes are made depends on the core values of institution and whether there are adequate ‘spaces’ to accommodate diversity. Makoelle (2017) postulates that implementation of inclusive education in higher education institutions calls for some structural changes, adjustments and modifications to enable students with diverse abilities and need to benefit and receive quality education.
Studies have noted the different challenges that are faced by students in higher education institutions of learning (Fuller, 2014; Haugann, 2011; Holloway; 2011). The challenges in higher education have been categorized in various forms including: physical access to buildings, accessing the curriculum, teaching methods, learning, and assessment. According to Henderson, (2011) apart from coping with the trauma of a disability students with disabilities find it difficult to access and afford several facilities and services while attending in higher education institutions. The absence of significant facilities and services could severely limit independence, geographical mobility, and employment opportunities upon graduation.
A study by Fuller (2014) the results revealed so many obstacles that are faced by students with disabilities in higher education these include: fast rate of teachers’ speech during the lectures, as well as difficulty in participating in the discussion by the students. In a study conducted by Haugann (2011) to identify the visual impairment students’ challenges in higher educational institutions the results indicated that these students face many different challenges; such as the absence of counseling services, few numbers of Braille printed books, lack of visual readers, difficulty to adjust to university life, teachers’ neglect of their special needs, and the problem of taking exams which are written in small font. Furthermore, Haugann (2011) reported that students may face increases in stress, additional time demands and financial burdens in trying to circumvent these barriers. Despite the challenges many studies have reported examples of good practice in terms of provision of support and a desire to improve and widen access for students living with disabilities (Fuller, 2014; Wolfendale & Corbett, 2007).
Makoelle and Kioko (2014) assert that although quite a number of studies have been conducted on higher education most of them focus on disabled students’ access to higher education and there is little mention of the individual experiences of students with invisible limitation. Furthermore, some studies tend to privilege particular categories of disabilities at the expense of others and what students are actually saying has not been researched in any systematic way thus they call for an inclusive approach. The purpose of this paper therefore, was to offer insights into the lived experiences of students living with disabilities in higher education institutions (HEIs) in Swaziland. This article was deemed important to make their voices heard and to highlight the various aspects of their experiences in higher education. It aimed to shed light on the barriers students face and effectiveness of the universities current approaches to support students with disabilities.

2.1 Selection of Participants
The target population for this study was students with hearing, visual and physical impairments who attended in higher education instructions of learning in Manzini region of Swaziland. The rationale for choosing Manzini region was that it has the highest concentration of higher education institutions than any other region in Swaziland. The sample size comprised of 29 participants comprising of 20 students living with disabilities, 6 lecturers and 3 administrators drawn through the nonprobability criterion purposive sampling procedure. The criterion purposive sampling allows qualitative researchers to select particular participants because they are believed to be sufficient to provide maximum insight and understanding of the phenomena under investigation (Schumacher & Macmillan, 2010; Thwala et al., 2015). The strength of the criterion purposive sampling is that the researchers were able to use their Judgment to select a sample they believed would provide the required empirical data (Reeja & Sujatha, 2013).

2.2 Instrumentations
In line with qualitative studies, empirical data used in this study were obtained by way of the focus group discussions (FGDs) and the semi-structured individual interviews. The use of multiple methods enabled the weakness of one method to be strengthened by a stronger one.
The FGD was adopted because it enabled the researchers to obtain data or information from a group of participants to supplement information from the individual interviews. It also enabled the researchers to access a larger quantity of participants than in individual interviews. One focus group discussions was conducted in each of the three participating institutions, and each group comprised six participants. A focus group guide comprising of a set of questions, which had themes with specific key issues were used to facilitate the FGD processes and each session lasted for 45minutes.
A semi structured face to face interview was used to acquire in-depth information about the experiences and challenges students with disabilities faced in institutions of higher learning. In each institution four students participated in the individual interviews. The snowballing sampling was used to select 12 participants for the individual interviews. Snowballing identified cases of interest from people who knew those with rich information. Moreover, it was very difficult to get details about students with disabilities from the institutions due to lack of data base regarding the number of students with disabilities enrolled. More time was given to discuss topics in detail and gain in-depth personal accounts. The researchers audio recorded all interviews to capture the exact words of participants, which helped in adding richness to the data being collected. The interviews enabled the researchers to get an understanding of the person’s behaviour through eyes and voices. Interviewees were engaged in a setting that was relaxed and familiar to them. The duration of the interview varied on an individual basis, thus each interview took about 40 minutes to 1hour. And an interview guide was used to direct the flow of the interview interaction. Both the interviews and FGDs were tape recorded.

2.3 Data Analysis Procedure
Both individual interviews and FGD focus group discussions were analysed thematically. They were listened to and transcribed verbatim into Microsoft word document. The researchers then followed a step-by-step approach to discover relevant themes. In line with Matenge (2015: 9), the researchers followed the “inductive thematic analysis…a process that involves observing themes as they emerged from the data without imposing preconceptions and allowing for the organization of themes within the data”. Then, the researchers followed a coding process in order to collapse numerous commonalities into categories, which informed the themes that emerged as the results of the study presented in the relevant section below. Pseudonyms were used for identification instead of the students ’names and to avoid mixing up of information. Related information was coded and grouped into categories. Following this, themes and narratives were identified from the categories. The themes and narratives were coded according to the objectives of the study.

2.4 Data Credibility
Credibility in this research refers to the degree by which the results of this study on the experiences of students with disabilities in higher education institutions remain truthful to the students. To achieve credibility, the researchers engaged in in depth conversation through the individual’s interview and FGDs. The researchers then conducted member checks on the analysed texts and transcripts so that participants are given the opportunity to confirm the authenticity of the reports (Creswell, 2014). In line with Elford (2015: 31), “member-checks were carried out through [cell phone conversations] with participants to share findings and allow participants to verify that meaning was accurately captured”. Most importantly, the researchers remained reflexive throughout the research process, which enabled them to objectively obtain and report the findings of the study.

2.5 Ethical Issues
Ethical approval was obtained from the Ministry of Education and Training. It is then important to note that participants’ involvement in the research was voluntary and the researchers clearly explained the purpose of the study to the participants. All participants were made to sign an informed consent letter. To maintain confidentiality and anonymity, pseudonyms or false names were used to replace the participants’ actual identities. The researchers were also mindful of the possibility of harm to participants, considering the sensitive nature of issues around disabilities. As a result, the researchers made an adequate attempt to ensure that participants were clearly aware of the objectives of the study. The researcher also explained to them that they were free to cancel the interview at any time they felt uncomfortable

The results of this study are presented based on the various challenges as expressed by the students who participated in the study. The findings generally revealed that students had so many challenges which affected their studies. These challenges are as follows:

3.1 Negative attitudes from the lecturers as well as fellow students
Negative attitudes featured strongly as a challenge amongst the students with disabilities in higher education institutions of learning. Participants in the study revealed that they were faced with severe negative attitudes from both lecturers and students. The findings also showed how these students were stigmatized due to their conditions. The majorities of the participants in the focus group attested to the fact that they are viewed as different and find it difficult to mix with other students and benefit form interactive learning. This was emphasized by one participant who said:
It is really difficult to make good and productive interaction because mostly our institutions just don’t understand disabilities. It is like they see themselves as more able to get ahead in life. We are sometimes ridiculed without reason and it affects the psychological state of mind. But with time and a consistent classmate we get used and they accept us however the first years of learning was really hard (Participant #8, 31 years, Institution A.)
In addition, attitudes shown by lecturers when addressing these students was brought to light by one participant who said that:
Our lecturers are sometimes extremely impatient with us, they expect us to be at par with the rest of the class and yet this may not be possible because of the disability we have. I have very low vision. Each time I raise a point for the lecturer to enlarge text I get negative response. In the end it becomes difficult to keep on reminding them (Participant #3, 26 years old, Institution, A).