BLOG: HE Disability Inclusion Research in the Global South

Are Global North Research Practices Blocking Progress of Higher Education Disability Inclusion Research in the Global South?

by Desire Chiwandire (PhD)

Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET)

Nelson Mandela University (Bird Street Campus)


Photograph of the 2020 artwork which is very painterly indicating three figures
'Social Distancing', Artwork by Felix Chiwandire, May 2020.

What does the traditional English proverb "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" mean? The meaning of this proverb could be true of the current state of disability inclusion research globally, including Global South countries like South Africa. In these countries there has been an emergence of some researchers endeavouring to achieve social justice for persons with disabilities (PWDs) by documenting the experiences of this group’s participation in mainstream society.

Most of these researchers aim to achieve social change, possibly motivated by their realisation that supportive disability policies in many countries have had little effect in achieving full inclusion for PWDs (Fisher & Purcal, 2017). These researchers claim that PWDs continue to be discriminated against, both on the grounds of their disability and minority identities, mainly because disability policies have not automatically translated into transforming the majority non-disabled communities’ negative attitudes towards disability (Fisher & Purcal, 2017).

Whether these efforts are driven by good intentions or not, disability inclusion non-disabled researchers, including myself, are not immune to perpetuating discrimination against PWDs (though subtle). This especially happens when researchers employ non-inclusive research methods and practices when studying PWDs.

A notable example is when researchers conduct one-sided research that focuses on challenges experienced by PWDs, rather than conducting research that focuses on documenting the lived experiences of PWDs holistically. Hartley & Muhit (2003), for example, have criticised researchers who utilise qualitative research methods in conducting disability research that fail to provide deeper understanding and analysis and do not give PWDs a chance to share their experiences on issues affecting their psychological, political, economic and social well-being within their societies, claiming that this is negligent. This negligence stems from these researchers’ reinforcement of unequal power relations in their interaction with research participants with disabilities, which often results in unfair exclusion of PWDs from participating meaningfully in the research processes as equals.

Proponents (see Ollerton, 2012) have argued that without the voices of PWDs informing disability research design right from the outset, not as mere participants but as co-researchers, this unequal power relationship will remain undisrupted. This holds true of the current state of disability inclusion research in South African higher education (HE) where the co-creation of knowledge between researchers and students with disabilities (SWDs) participants has not been fully achieved. This continues to have unintended negative consequences for these students.

Origins of Critical Disability Studies

Critical Disability Studies (CDS) has been defined as an area or field of research and practice that “seek[s] to change conventional notions of disabled people as pitiable, tragic victims who should adjust to the world around them” (Reaume, 2014: 1). Changing these conventional ableist notions towards PWDs requires researchers to document the experiences of PWDs living in the Global South as objectively as possible.

This is because the field of CDS is said to have originated mainly in Global North countries such as the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US), and Canada in the 1980s through the active contributions of disabled activists and academics themselves. This group successfully challenged the way their lived experiences were distorted by medical professionals and policy makers, among others in their countries, and their subsequent formulation of the social model of disability. This model has been integrated into such international human rights instruments as the 2006 United Nations on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) as well as in many countries’ national and institutional disability policies.

A man kneeling in front of a sign that says: Lancaster University - Welcome to Main Campus
Dr Chiwandire after presenting ‘Funding mechanisms to foster inclusion in higher education institutions for students with disabilities’ at Lancaster University Disability Studies International Conference, 2016

Even though CDS is a major improvement over research focusing on challenges, what remains worrying is the fact that most CDS research is dominated by voices and theories from the Global North. Such voices and theories often fail to consider or effectively theorise Global South disability experiences in a contextually relevant way and this has been problematic when developing policies on inclusion in HE in Global South countries, including South Africa.

CDS and inclusive education practices in South Africa

Following the country’s transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994, South Africa formulated numerous disability inclusion policies, including the 2018 Strategic Policy Framework on Disability for the Post-School Education and Training System, which aimed to advance the right to inclusive education for SWDs. The new government also established the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) which provided non-means-tested bursaries to needy and deserving SWDs. This resulted in an increase in numbers of this historically excluded group attending higher education institutions (HEIs).

Despite South Africa having supportive inclusive education policies in place, the dominant findings from recent studies (Mutanga, 2019; Chiwandire, 2020) indicate that SWDs are one of the underrepresented minority groups in terms of academic success at most HEIs as they continue to face systematic barriers which limit their full participation. This has partly been attributed to the fact that disability inclusion matters are still not considered a key priority by all stakeholders charged with implementing these disability inclusion policies in HE (Mutanga, 2019).

Man with hands clasped speaking to an implied audience with a banner behind him that says Disability Colloquium
Dr Chiwandire delivering a welcome address at the Disability Colloquium, 2018. Gqeberha, South Africa.

Given that such Global North countries as the UK, the US, and Canada started embarking on disability inclusion initiatives in the 1970s, they are now known for having anti-discrimination legislations that specifically provide for the inclusion of SWDs in HEIs. Some South African CDS scholars who commend these countries for this achievement tend to criticise South Africa for taking a foot-dragging approach in promoting the rights of SWDs, and thus calling for it to follow suit. Mutanga & Walker (2017), for instance, have argued that without a formal national disability policy that formalises the provision of the standardisation of disability inclusion matters within universities, South Africa is unlikely to achieve the goals of inclusive education meaningfully.

However, it would be fallacious to believe that inclusive education goals can be achieved only at the policy level. Rather, achieving such goals would also require a mind-set shift, especially on the part of those non-disabled stakeholders who hold negative attitudes towards SWDs.

Research methodologies utilised by South African CDS still tends to privilege the dominance of the Global North in knowledge production, thus reinforcing the colonial legacies of racialised and ableist knowledge production. This is the case with some South African studies’ (see Tugli et al. 2013; Nel et al. 2015; Mazoue, 2011) methodologies, which focus on investigating challenges experienced by SWDs in HEIs. Often, these studies’ starting point is that South African HEIs are lagging behind in many aspects relating to disability rights promotion when compared to their Global North counterparts. This is evidenced by how such researchers constantly cite the literature that portrays Global North countries’ HEIs as comparatively barrier-free for SWDs, which in reality is not true.

I find this approach flawed because going into the research field with a questionnaire or interview schedule that insinuates that there are already challenges of some sort on the issue being investigated limit SWD participants to only speak about their challenges, and not possible opportunities or best practices if they also exist in their HEIs. The negative implications of this is that it results in few stakeholders wanting to be associated with challenges being experienced by SWDs within their institutions. This is evidenced by the findings from recent research (see Chiwandire, 2020), which indicate that relevant stakeholders (mainly lecturers, the HEI leadership and university management, and Disability Unit Staff Members) charged with achieving meaningful inclusiveness were found to be shifting responsibility onto one another. This has negatively impacted the academic success of SWDs at sampled HEIs.

Guided by Global North countries’ methodologies and best practice exemplars on disability inclusion, we have also seen some South African CDS scholars conducting research which reinforces what I will call victim-blaming medicalised approaches. Such approaches often negatively perceive a student’s disability as ‘personal tragedy’ which needs to be fixed or normalised. Therefore, these scholars construct the HE environment as equally barrier-free for SWDs, which is not always true. Thus, some of these studies have associated SWDs’ low retention and high dropout rates in South African HE with this groups’ lack of resilience (Duma, 2019), and/or self-advocacy skills (Van Jaarsveldt & Ndeya-Ndereya, 2015). These studies’ findings should not be taken at face value because they redirect our attention from the impact of environmental and attitudinal barriers in disabling SWDs’ potential to effectively progress at HEIs. Needless to say, engaging in self-advocacy and being resilient in a practical sense, first and foremost require the HE environment itself to be as supportive as possible of the learning needs of diverse SWDs.

‘The untouchables’: Higher education leadership and slow-paced disability inclusion reform

A group of people in front of a CUADS banner, one in a wheelchair
Dr Chiwandire after interviewing participants at a South African university in 2017

It is important to note that South African CDS scholars who uncritically embrace research practices from the Global North continue to produce potentially flawed research findings as this cadre is not tackling the root cause of barriers to inclusive education in HE. My recent doctoral research (Chiwandire, 2020) findings have added new insights by pointing to the HEIs’ leadership and the university management personnel as creating a stumbling block to the full inclusion of SWDs. Most of the Disability Unit staff members I sampled complained about their university management personnel’s reluctance to budget or invest financially in disability inclusion initiatives, as they view doing so as a costly exercise (Chiwandire, 2020). Some of the university management personnel have claimed lack of understanding or awareness of their institutional disability policies relating to SWDs as one of the main reasons for not implementing the provisions of disability policy frameworks.

In some cases, the university management personnel have shifted the responsibility of supporting SWDs to their Disability Unit staff members, and most of them are not challenging this unfair practice because of their powerless position (Chiwandire, 2020). Even on a national level, South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has still not put monitoring mechanisms in place to hold to account university management personnel who do not adhere to national disability legislation and their institutional disability policies, which in some cases they have claimed not to be aware of.

I refer to HE leadership and the management as ‘the untouchables’ because DHET personnel, Disability Unit staff members and CDS researchers themselves are reluctant to criticise them. This has far-reaching consequences for Disability Unit staff members who are left with no choice but to assume extra responsibilities because of the university management personnel’s unresponsiveness. There is research (Mutanga, 2019) that shows that management’s unresponsiveness continues to disproportionately affect SWDs, leaving them at risk of either dropping out, taking longer to graduate, or having to work twice as hard than their non-disabled peers if they are to progress in the HE system.

Concluding remarks: Operationalising Ubuntu values

In conclusion, I take seriously Oliver’s (1992) call for CDS scholars to adopt inclusive research strategies that are participatory and emancipatory if they are to challenge the current exclusion of PWDs from the production of disability research. It is hoped that such emancipatory research strategies will dismantle the unequal power structures that continue to benefit researchers at the cost of empowering PWDs to play an active role in research production (Oliver, 1992). I also argue in favour of such participatory research approaches to be complemented by inclusive context-specific theories so that the collected data is can be analysed holistically.

In terms of such theories, I agree with Higgs’s (2012) call for the need to draw on African philosophical frameworks like Ubuntu if we are to transform educational discourse in Africa. Doing so, Higgs (2012) further argues, will achieve radical educational transformation not only in a manner that respects the diversity of Africans’ lived experiences, but also challenges the hegemony of Western forms of knowledge as universally applicable.

It is argued that the “notion of Ubuntu is derived from the Nguni dictum, Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, that translates as: ‘A person is a person through other persons’” (Chisale, 2020: 2). The African philosophy of Ubuntu, as argued by Shutte (2001: 2), “embodies an understanding of what it is to be human and what is necessary for human beings to grow and find fulfilment”. Seen in this light, I recommend CDS researchers in South Africa to start questioning and rethinking how the lived experiences of SWDs continues to be studied uncritically. This could take the form of utilising the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which stresses values of communalism, hospitality and respect for human dignity, as an alternative starting point for achieving genuinely transformed and inclusive campuses.

Regarding the ‘untouchable’ university management personnel, this cadre needs to abandon their autonomous, selfish and self-centered mentality. This mentality is evident in how they distance themselves from addressing disability inclusion matters instead of embracing Ubuntu’s value of communalism, which promotes cooperation between all individuals within a community.

Proponents (Schapera, 1996) have argued that leaders in traditional Ubuntu-oriented African societies did not consider themselves as above the law, but were open to criticism through giving their people freedom of expression. This helped in strengthening good governance. Applying a similar analysis to the South African HE context, it is important for university management personnel to work collaboratively with all other relevant stakeholders, including SWDs themselves, to find practical ways of best facilitating the full inclusion of this group.

Image of disability rights activists having a conversation at an event.
Dr Chiwandire at the Disability Networking Zone - International AIDS Conference 2016

Applying Ubuntu’s concept of hospitality to disability inclusion in HE would require us to call upon relevant stakeholders to create campuses that are hospitable to all SWDs, both from an academic and social inclusion standpoint. In simpler terms, hospitable campuses are ones that give all SWDs a sense of belonging regardless of their minority identity and severity of their disability. Achieving this should not only be the responsibility of universities’ stakeholders but, most importantly, also that of South African CDS scholars who unreasonably expect SWDs to be resilient and have self-advocacy skills despite the HE environment being disabling towards this group. CDS scholars should abandon Western individualist conceptualisations of self-advocacy and resilience as it unjustifiably puts the onus on SWDs to fit into an oppressive, unchanged HE environment.

As for Ubuntu’s value of respect for human dignity, this should apply especially to most South African CDS scholars who, if guided by this value, can move away from their current dominant narrow research methodology approaches that focus on exploring the challenges experienced by SWDs at HEIs. There is an urgent need for CDS scholars to abandon such methodologies as they perpetuate deficit stereotypes and assumptions, which associate having a disability as requiring SWDs to constantly be reminded that they are a burden, not only to themselves, but also to their universities. Rather, they should replace these methodologies with participatory approaches. This will help researchers and participants co-create knowledge, broadening the focus of the research to include probing issues related to how SWDs would like their universities to best support their learning needs holistically.

Proponents (Ndlovu, 2007) have commended traditional African leaders for their humbleness as they often relied on holistic consultations to arrive at fair conclusions that addressed the common good, but this is currently lacking in South African HEIs. HEI leadership and CDS researchers need to give SWDs a voice at the outset of national and institutional disability policy formulation processes. Doing so will help us generate knowledge based on the lived experiences of PWDs, thus broadening the field of CDS by making it genuinely reflective of the voices of SWDs from Global South countries. I personally aspire to see this happening.

Dr Desire Chiwandire is a postdoctoral fellow with the Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET), Nelson Mandela University, South Africa.

Disability in Africa: Inclusion, Care and the Ethics of Humanity edited by Toyin Falola and Nic Hamel is available at


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