On 23 September, South Africa hosted the Down Syndrome Gymnastics World Championships at the Matsport Centre. The event featured participants from all over the world and is an excellent step in showing South Africa’s progressive involvement in disability advocacy.
The centre hosted the women’s and men’s all-around competitions as well as rhythmic gymnastics. Athletes included American Chelsea ‘Showtime’ Werner, a three-time world champion gymnast, as well as participants from Italy, Mexico, Bulgaria, and the USA. The event also featured a demonstrative performance by some of South Africa’s young Down syndrome gymnasts. Spectators included young children and adults with Down syndrome (some of whom were visiting from a local children’s home) who were all enthusiastically cheering on the competitors.
The slogan of the competition was ‘Exxtra Awesome’. And the underlying theme of the competition was showcasing the abilities of individuals born with the chromosomal disorder and eliminating preconceptions surrounding what it means to be born with Down syndrome.
With South Africa taking such a significant leap towards advocating for disability rights and inclusion, PDBY felt it necessary to investigate the University of Pretoria’s outlook on disability. PDBY contacted Juan Erwee, the senior disability officer acting as the current head of the Disability Unit, to gain greater insight into Tuks’s disability program.
At present, approximately 500 pupils are enrolled under the disability unit. Erwee shared that there are numerous accommodations and resources available to those with physical and learning disabilities. These include braille printers, audio-guided laptops, and accessible bathrooms. Students also have access to spelling, time, and typing concessions. A unique feature also available at Tuks is the guide dog rest area behind the Chancellor’s Building.
Access to these resources allows students with disabilities greater independence on campus, shares Erwee. However, Erwee emphasised that the Disability Unit’s primary goal is not simply to provide these accommodations to students but to allow them to learn and grow in such a way that they become employable in the workforce. It is not enough only to assist pupils during their time on campus; the skills they learn on campus should be transferable beyond the university setting.
Sympathy and empathy are at the core of the unit. Erwee stated that the Disability Unit can sometimes be tough on those using their services. But it is only through this ‘tough love’ principle that those with disabilities can be taught to see beyond their disability and gain greater independence. This follows the practice of unlearning ‘learnt incompetence’. If an individual is told they are incapable of doing something and the task is always performed for them, they will continue to believe this. However, given the right tools and motivation, almost anything is possible.
Finally, Erwee shared an insightful thought. The tuition paid by pupils to the university grants them access to libraries, lecture halls, and the sports centre. Students with disabilities pay this same tuition and thus should be afforded the same access to these facilities. It is the job of the university to grant them this.
Robert M Hensel, a world record holder born with spina bifida, once said, “There is no greater disability in society than the inability to see a person as more.” Between the Down syndrome gymnastics championships and the valiant efforts of the Disability Unit to create a sense of equality among students, it is clear that Tuks and South Africa as a whole are on a path to defining those with disabilities as more than just a sum of their limitations.