Agency and advocacy: disabled students in Higher Education in Ghana and Tanzania
Between 10% and 15% of the worlds population are thought to be disabled. The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is an example of emerging global policy architecture for human rights for disabled people. Article 24 states that disabled people should receive the support required to facilitate their effective education. In research, links between higher education access, equalities and disability are being explored by scholars of the sociology of higher education. However, with the exception of some small-scale studies from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Rwanda, Namibia, Uganda and Pakistan, literature tends to come from the global North. Yet there is a toxic correlation between disability and poverty especially in the global South.
This article is based on a review of the global literature on disability in higher education and interview findings from the project Widening Participation in Higher Education in Ghana and Tanzania: developing an Equity Scorecard, (WPHEGT) funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department for International Development. A central finding was that while disability was associated with constraints, misrecognition, frustration, exclusion and even danger, students agency, advocacy and achievement in higher education offered opportunities for transforming spoiled identities.
The students in the WPHEGT study have shown their detailed knowledge of what they need to enable them to contribute to their societies materially and socially. Their narratives of struggle to succeed in education demonstrate the agency and advocacy that they have exercised individually and collectively through disabled peoples organisations. For many of the students, disability was at least partly about a positive identity rather than only about impairment.
It was the built environment and social relations that created difficulties for them as they sought to develop their capacities and realise their educational and professional potential. Questions remain about the disabled students who were unable to maintain the struggle to be educated in schools largely serving to select the few rather than educate all. The students in this study aspired to be advocates for other disabled people as they sought to redefine what it means to be a disabled person in Ghana and Tanzania. Universities need to provide an education in learning to live together, for disabled and non-disabled students alike. As a pivotal knowledge hub, HE needs to play an enhanced role in the creation and dissemination of knowledge by and with disabled people in order to challenge prejudice and promote social inclusion. In a globalised knowledge economy, the value of HE needs to be seen in terms of social justice, well-being, wealth distribution and poverty alleviation, and not only as wealth creation.