Assistive Technology Learning In South African Higher Institutions Education Essay

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Students with disabilities in many societies are facing debilitating quandaries, including physical, emotional and physiological degradation. As a result, empowering students with disabilities to realize their self-esteem as well as to enhance their skills and employability represents an interesting and challenging task to government, industry, interest groups and individuals worldwide. The purpose of this research was to determine the "Impact of Assistive Technology (AT) on disabilities students learning in South African Higher Institutions, from a student's voice perspective." As a case study, we will validate our experimental design on randomly selected students with disabilities from Higher Institution of Pretoria and Tshwane Higher Institution of Technology, due to their closeness to the researcher, it makes the study cost-effective. The reasons for involving students in this research have its origins from two related subjects: (a) Participatory Research and (b) Participatory Study. The data collection tools that this research will use are; (a) questionnaire and (b) focus groups which will be used in all three phases of this study. The results of this study will enable the understanding of various unresolved issues brought about by the students with disabilities' needs for assistive technologies in South African Higher Institutions. We are hopeful that our design will be systemic enough to be easily extrapolated into other institutions.


ADA American Disability Act

CSIR Council for Scientific and Industrial Research

ICT Information and Communication Technology

CHE Council for Higher Education

DoE Department of Education

VLE Virtual Learning Environment

DU Disability Unit

MTech Master in Technology Degree

TUT Tshwane University of Technology

UP University of Pretoria


UD Universal Design

WHO World Health Organisation

SAHRC South African Human Rights Council








PR Participatory Research

PD Participatory Design





Reflection Boxes:


1.1: Introduction

In South Africa, people with disabilities account for four (4) million of the total population; as contained in the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) report (reporter, 2009). This latest statistics significantly outgrows the one published by Statistics South Africa in 2001 which was only about 2 million out of the total population of about 49 million (Statistics South Africa, 2001).

With the vast growth of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in South Africa (RSA) and the government's desire to have more people with disabilities empowered, particularly with education (CHE, 2005); the implementing of Assistive Technology (AT) in academic institutions is a necessity with not an option. An Assistive Technology (AT) is technology as points out by Mirenda (2001) is used to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or become a challenge for individuals with learning disabilities.

Assistive technology can include mobility devices such as walkers and wheelchairs, consisting of both hardware, software, and peripherals with the aim of assisting people with disabilities in accessing computers or other information technologies; for instance , people with limited hand function may require a specialised keyboard with large keys or a special mouse to enhance their ability to operate a computer; While people who are blind may use software that reads text on the screen in a computer-generated voice, people with low vision may use software that enlarges screen content, people who are deaf may use a TTY (text telephone), or people with speech impairments may use a device that speaks out loud as they enter text via a keyboard.

With this in mind, the standard of education for these students will gratefully improve since there will be sustained information flow that all students will receive without much alteration onto the educational information. However, in order to make the vast number of available AT devices and software beneficial to students with disabilities as indicated by Duhaney and Duhaney (2000) there is the need for careful planning and guidance.

In South Africa, the Department of Education (DoE, 2001b) is currently emphasizing the importance of AT services and equipment provision in South African schools for students with disabilities so as to enable a "free and appropriate (balanced)" public education.

Majority of Higher Institutions in RSA use online learning such as; (a) virtual learning environments (VLE), (b) discussion lists, (c) e-mail, (d) podcasts and (e) library information databases to provide information to their students. Students of today are being classified as "digital native" of the "net generation" Oblinger (2003), so they expect technology to be integrated into their learning environments. Oblinger (2003) argues that, this would need for the Higher Institutions stakeholders to analyse just how well they know about the new students that are being enrolled into their universities.

Most of the literature that is available about the impact of ATs on students with disabilities in Higher Institutions comes from three sources;

Literature and Case Studies that have been developed from publicly funded studies;

Research studies that have explored the general education experiences of disabled students;

Research studies that have explored the specific ICT (e-learning) experiences of disabled students.

What the conclusions from the studies have not made clear though, are whether their findings are true for all students, especially the students with disabilities who may need ATs to enable them to access learning materials that may be provided online or digitally or may need other forms of technology to access them?

The impacts of the use of ATs on students with disability in RSA are enormous. Not only are ATs beneficial in classroom environments, disabilities students' social lives have also changed as well as improved with better communication between the disabilities students and their non-disabled peers. Life is all about communicating and interacting with one's environment. However, many issues and barriers impact on the successful use of ATs such as lack of AT knowledge, training, funding, poor coordination between service providers, technology developers and fear/avoidance of these technologies.

With the use of ATs, opportunities for students with disabilities are better enhanced. Some of the most significant changes in the education of disabilities students in South Africa have been the initiative to adapt the "inclusive education/Universal Design" theory into their education system (CHE, 2005). This form of initiative is mainly a collaborative setting which includes a content specialist paired with a learning specialist and then leads to sharing of the teaching responsibilities which will later benefit the education of both general and students with disabilities. The use of inclusive education may change from institution to institution but it clearly indicates that it is extremely important in enabling those students archive their educational goals.

1.2. Overview of this Research

[…] Voice as a first concept in any form of planning, evaluation or decision-making. This enabling the will of an individual in relation to others and also as a collective voice within a group of individuals that's a democratic voice […] Voice as a second concept is related to scenarios when tell their own stories and experiences. Using Voice in this concept enables to bridge the individual and collective as it both speaks in a common thread. […] and to diversity and differences in experiences lived. (Swain & French, 1998:40)

1.2.1. Problem Statement and Research Questions

Today, the greatest challenge confronting South African students with disabilities is to smoothly integrate into academics and at large the society, participate in a competitive educational system and be equipped for the professional economic world. A number of emerging technologies: assistive and adaptive technologies have been developed to cater for these students. However, very little literature has been written about these novel technologies and their impact on the students with disabilities from a "student's voice" . Moreover, the evaluation of their impact on the end-users has also not been widely researched and reported in the academic publications. One way to ensure best outcomes for students with disabilities learning in South African Higher Institutions would be to evaluate the effective usage of ATs on these groups of students. To do so, different types of ATs would have to be identified and opinions of these students need to be sampled on the use of these emerging technologies. Thus, a participatory research is necessary to determine the impact of ATs on students with disabilities learning in South Africa from the students' perspective because "we need to listen to students; with disabilities' views and ensure that technology meets their needs." The main research question we are addressing in this proposed study is:

How does AT usage impact students with disabilities learning in South Africa Higher Educational Institutions?

To answer this question satisfactorily, first it is important to identify various ATs available and determine their contributions towards improving the academic performance of disabilities students learning in South Africa. As result, the following research sub-questions will be squarely addressed in order to solve the main research question.

What are the different types of Assistive Technologies available to students with disabilities learning in South Africa Higher Educational Institutions?

How do students with disabilities feel about using Assistive Technologies to help them learn?

How does Assistive Technologies use affect how and what students with disabilities learn?

What support do students with disabilities receive while using Assistive Technologies in their learning?

How compatible are the Assistive Technologies provided to students with disabilities to their needs?

What problems do students with disabilities encounter while using Assistive Technologies and how is each solved?

How has the use of Assistive Technologies enhanced the academic performance of students with disabilities?

1.2.2. Goals and Objectives of the Study

Linked to the problem statement, this research had an overarching objective which was to promote the development of user-centred methodologies for studying the impacts of technology on students with disabilities and to expose these widely so as to encourage a participatory approach to studying and designing students with disabilities' use of technologies in South Africa Higher Institutions. This goal was accomplished by implementing the following primary objectives.

To identify different types of Assistive Technologies available to students with disabilities learning in South African higher institutions.

To determine how students with disabilities feel about using Assistive Technologies to help them learn.

To determine how assistive technology students with disabilities are using affect how and what they learn.

To determine what support students with disabilities receive while use Assistive Technologies in their learning. This can be from University, friends and family.

To determine whether the Assistive Technologies students with disabilities are using is compatible with their needs.

To determine what problems students with disabilities encounter while using Assistive Technologies and how they are solved.

To determine whether the use of the Assistive Technologies improves academic performance of students with disabilities learning in South African higher institutions.

1.3. Research Design and Methodology

A research design is necessary to start and complete any research. It's the framework of how the researcher intends to undertake the research. It also serves as a bridge between the objectives, research question and the results of the research. The purpose and the paradigm of the study, the methodology, and the context in which the study took place should be cohesive (Terre Blanche & Durrheim, 1999). The purpose of this study was to explore and describe experiences of students with disabilities in South African Higher Institutions as they use ATs in their learning environments. The research questions in this thesis required me to follow an interpretive paradigm within a qualitative research methodology because this research consisted of research participants giving their experiences of using ATs in their learning environments (Terre Blanche & Durrheim, 1999). These paradigms are the perspectives that provide the researcher with the methods of data collection, observation and interpretation (Terre Blanche, Durrheim, 1999). Furthermore, these paradigms also include the ontological, methodological and epistemological understanding of the research by the researcher. My goal was therefore, to understand how students with disabilities interpreted their own meaning of the experiences of using AT in their learning environments (Neuman, 2000). This led me to being involved in a mean-making process with the research participants where I used qualitative (participatory) methods of collecting data such as use of Questionnaires, focus groups and Observing methods.

1.3.1 Selection of participants

Through the Disability Unit (DU) 26 Students with disabilities from two South African Higher Institutions were selected to participate in this research by using snowballing, convenience sampling and purposive sampling. The major types of disabilities that were in these Universities are; hearing impairments, visual impairments, learning impairments and physical impairments.

1.3.2 Methods of data collection

This research observes that using qualitative methods exemplifies a common belief that can provide a deeper knowledge of the social phenomena (Silverman, 2000). By using interviewing (individual and focus group interviews), I was able to enter into someone else's world and understand their perspective (Patton, 2002). I therefore got a better inside perspective of the experiences and meaning of the participants as they use AT in their learning environments. I also used observations, field notes and reflection boxers as methods to collect data that I used in this research. Semi-structured interviews

In a participatory research like this one, it's very important to provide the research participants with a framework that would allow them to respond their experiences in their own ways. Using interviewing as a method of data collection made sure that these entire topics were covered (Patton, 2002). This provided more flexibility and allowed me to explore some topics in greater depth. The interviews in this research were tape-recorded with the consent of the research participants. During the interviews, I also took some notes to as to formulate some themes and also to go back and clarify what had been said earlier if needed so, these interviews were then transcribed verbatim (Patton, 2002). Focus group interview

Focus groups interviews were conducted with students with disabilities so as to get an understanding on the experiences of using ATs in their learning environments. The focus groups interviews were mainly done after I had completed the first interviews. The use of focus groups allowed the students with disabilities to add more information in case one felt they hadn't answered their questions clearly. This lead to a larger and richer pool of data for the research. Literature review

The literature review of this research analyzed and identified the literature both local and international that was related to the objectives of this study. This helped me have a better perspective of my study and also be able to gauge my research against what had been written earlier.

1.3.3 Data analysis

Data analysis is the means of searching for understanding and means to processing data. Thus, this involves the act of making sense of data collected from the field in terms of the research (Merriam, 1998). This process involves the act of transferring data so as to answer the initial questions that were asked in the data collection method (Terre Blanche & Durrheim, 1999). The process of data analysis started during phase one of this research. This research entitled me as a qualitative researcher to put effort on understanding and interpreting the world of the research participants (Mouton, 1996). This involved three steps; (a) scanning the data, (b) organizing the data and (c) presenting the research findings.

1.4. Expected Deliverables

Within a 2 year project leading to an award of MTech degree, it is important to ensure that there are clear expectations for what can be delivered in these time-scales. The following deliverables were met;

A comprehensive account of students with disabilities' learning experiences and a clear documentation of the impact of AT on students with disabilities.

A set of recommendations for practitioners, support staff, institutional managers and program developers on ways to manage the challenges of students with disabilities.

A summary report detailing how the research questions were addressed and drawing out lessons learned from the particular institutional context.

1.5. Hypothesis

The hypothesis underpinning this study was to gain certain aspects of students with disabilities' learning environment tasks (if not all) will and have improved due to the proper utilisations of ATs. With the main research question as a basis, this study's hypothesis implied that ATs creates value addition. With this in mind, it must be said that only through the creation of general awareness can this be possible in South African Higher Institutions. Students that are fortunate enough to attend institutions that have existing ATs in place score again the full benefits of using ATs in their learning environment.

1.6. Limitations of the Study

This research was not conducted to develop or replicate any existing policies, schemes, models or plans that involve the use of ATs, but simple as an evaluation, analysis and if possible critique the implications of ATs on students with disabilities. Therefore this research didn't go into too much detailed research nor navigate away from the main objectives of the research. This research also notifies that it's not its intention to isolate, seek or discuss all factors negating the full scope of ATs usage, but just to highlight some of the impacts of ATs and the effect these technologies have on students who directly use them.

This research was therefore limited to only two South African Higher Institutions (University of Pretoria and Tshwane University of Technology). Due to this factor, the results of this research can't be entirely be generalised into other institutions.

This research has also got its own areas of potential bias. Questionnaires were distributed to a number of students with disabilities and data was primarily gathered. This research notes it didn't expect to have all questionnaires answered or fully answered and returned. Even during interviews, some of the interviewees might not have been as expressive as hoped. Furthermore, the fact that ATs are a new trend in most South African Educational institutions means that there was limited knowledge of most of ATs available by the students themselves and some of the staff members.

This research also notes that it hoped for a higher number of research participants but only received a small number; this means that not all disabilities were fully exhausted in this study and also the responses were limited to a few students who allowed participating in this research. Some of the students with disabilities couldn't participate in this research because of class obligations or some were doing assignments so didn't have enough time to be interviewed and some just feared saying something that would put their sponsorship in jeopardy at the Higher Institution.

The methodology of this research included ethical policies and considerations that had to be followed, especially confidentiality of research participants, which enabled the research participants to make be interviewed without their personal information being made public. However to achieve this, the responsibility fell with the Disability Unit (DU) departments of the respective universities to contact the students with disabilities for participation in this research. The decision to involve the DU may have been impacted by time and workload constraints. This was because within the project period; ethics approval, contact with DU staffs, initial response period and further contact with all bodies of the universities had to take place within the specific period of the research. This period occurred during the academic year and was busy time for both the DU and the students with disabilities and this may have contributed to the low response rate.

Thus, taking these limitations into considerations, this research notes that the findings from this research shouldn't be concluded as absolute but should only be taken as guidelines for ATs usage and improvement in South African higher institutors.

1.7. Assumptions

This study was underpinned by assumptions that ATs do exist and are somewhat effective and being used by students with disabilities in South African Higher Institutions. However, there was limited study in the implications of ATs on students with disabilities in South African Higher Institutions from a students' voice perspective.

Reflections appear interspersed throughout this research. The reflections that are directly quoted from my journal are presented as thought bubbles. Other more detailed reflections are presented as 'reflection' boxes such as this one. In this way it more closely resembles what actually happened in practice and, by conveying some of the tensions as they occurred, aims to bring the research process alive. The use of reflection boxes facilitates, and forms part of, the reflexive process that is employed as a methodological tool in this study. The reflections are explored in greater depth in chapters 5 and 6.

Reflection Box : Explanation of reflection boxes

1.8. Significance of the Study

With the latter sections of this study explaining the aims of this study, it should be deduced that this research was conducted to explore How does AT usage impact students with disabilities learning in South Africa Higher Educational Institutions, so as to increase understanding of the many complex issues and interactions introduced by disabled students requirements for better learning environments. With people with disabilities in South Africa accommodating a fair share of the population, recognising that students with disabilities are not a minority group is very important. Students with disabilities and access to Assistive technologies in South Africa schools were included in the study in order to:

Explore and describe how students with disabilities participate in learning in Technology-rich environments with the use of AT;

Investigate the strategies, beliefs and intentions of students with disabilities who are effective in learning in this rich ICT world and identity factors that enable or inhibit effective use of Assistive Technology in learning.

Make recommendations to those stakeholders involved in designing Technology for disabled students based on our understanding of their preferences, experiences and diverse needs.

By this research exploring the issues relating to experience, I hoped to develop a greater perspective and understanding of the skill levels of students with disabilities. For example, whether there is a relationship between a highly skilled technologies based students without disabilities and a highly skilled Assistive Technology user; how students with disabilities use ATs e.g. how they are involving some of the 'personal' AT in their learning and what students with disabilities' experiences of interactions between Assistive and education technologies are.

By this research focusing on issues relating to strategies, I soughed to identify the choices students with disabilities make regarding how they use AT to support their learning environments.

By this research seeking to understand issues relating to beliefs & intentions, I hoped to develop an understanding of the impact that AT use has on students with disabilities in terms of their feelings regarding the value and difficulties of using these kinds of Technology to support their learning and other aspects of their livelihood.

By identifying and scoping enabling or inhibiting factors the study research to illuminate issues regarding how well institutions support different kinds of students with disabilities.

1.9. The use of verbatim, uncorrected quotes

Since this research is focusing on the research approach that is used to give a 'real voice' to students with disabilities in South African Higher Education institutions. Where this research quotes a research participants' contribution, this research will quote them 'verbatim'. It means that this research will not try correcting the grammar, or phrasing of the participants' contributions. This research may on some parts edit phrases by research participants (students with disabilities) for spelling and length; on such occasions where there has been editing of the sentences and words of the participants, this research will use the […] sign to indicate that.

1.10. Definition of terms

1.10.1. Disability:

Disability refers to the restrictions or disadvantages of activities caused by the ways in which society is organised which assumes little or no account of people who have a disability (e.g. physical, sensory or mental impairments). This results in such people from being prevented and excluded from performing or participating equivalently in the mainstream society. Thus, disability is then imposed on people with impairments, resulting in them being disabled by their impairments (UPIAS, 1976 in Philpott & McLaren, 1997:181).

1.10.2. Assistive technology:

Is "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability. The term does not include a medical device that is surgically implanted or the replacement of such device" (IDEIA 2004).

1.10.3. Inclusive education/Universal design:

Universal design is a process for designing general (i.e., used by everyone) products or structures in such a way as to reduce barriers for any individual (either with or without disabilities) and to increase opportunities for the widest possible range of users (Scott, McGuire, & Shaw, 2003). Because the intended consumers are groups of individuals (i.e., a whole community), universal designs are engineered for flexibility, designed to anticipate the need for alternatives, options, and adaptations. In that regard, universal designs are often malleable and variable rather than dedicated. They are not unique or personal, but universal and inclusive, accommodating diversity.

1.11. Structure of Thesis

The present work consists of 7 chapters:

Chapter 1: Introduction; this chapter provides the background, research questions, the goals and objectives of this research.

Chapter 2: Literature Review; this chapter provides an overview of the relevant literature. The literature focuses on the Impact of Assistive Technology on Students with disabilities in Higher Educational Institutions as well as support services.

Chapter 3: Research Methodology; this chapter discusses the research paradigm. It is followed by the research design and methodology. This covers the qualities of qualitative research especially using participatory research, the selection of research participants, the data collection methods and analysis are also discussed in this chapter. It also includes the ethics considerations that had to be taken into account while conducting this research.

Chapter 4: Results Overview; this chapter presents the research findings, thus the experiences of research participants that were gathered in phase two of this research.

Chapter 5: Discussions; this chapter involves the discussions of the research findings with relation to other studies and tries to compare them.

Chapter 6: Recommendations and Conclusion; this chapter presents the recommendations from this research for future research and the general conclusion to the whole research.

1.12: Conclusion

In this chapter the context and purpose of the study were described and the research problem was clearly formulated. Furthermore, the research design and paradigm of the study, the research methodology, data collection methods and the data analysis were discussed. The chapter concluded with an outline of the process of investigation.