Law graduate turns adversity to access

2009-04-28 00:00

IT’S not about it being easy, it’s what you do to survive.

That has been the attitude Skhumbuzo Hlatshwayo (27) took on early in life.

It was this same resolution that pulled him thorough all the adversities he encountered as a blind student and saw him graduating with a law degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal recently, making him the first graduate in his family.

According to Hlatshwayo, it was his visual impairment that drove his mother, a single parent who was uneducated and without a job, to sell goods on the streets so that her son would have a brighter future.

“Her rationale was all my other siblings would be able to fend for themselves should she die. And going on the notion that education is power, she made a decision that I need to go to school.”

It was through these interactions with her clients that led to him attending the Arthur Blaxall School for the blind, despite relatives branding this as a useless exercise since he would get a disability grant from the government.

Nonetheless, after matriculating, Hlatshwayo was accepted to all three universities he had applied to. But he admits nothing prepared him for the challenges that lay ahead.

He said he started at UKZN’s law school, then the University of Natal, in 2003. Hlatshwayo said when he began studying support for visually impaired students was lacking.

“It was literally one crisis after another. But worst of all was the fact that the disability unit had no-one looking out for the needs of the disabled students at that time.”

Lecturers wrote on blackboards or used overheads during lessons and all handouts were in ink — information that was no use to Hlatshwayo.

“I soon realised that my survival was dependant on having friends who could help, which in itself is not an easy thing. I would listen in class and relied on them to read out the handout for me.”

He said this was made worse by the fact that 90% of course material when studying for an LLB comes from reading articles and journals as well as being required to source cases.

Even when the university eventually provided a computer with Jaws software, which converts text to speech, Hlatshwayo still found himself in a crisis — he had never been taught to operate a computer while in school.

When he did learn to operate the computer, he found that his work load was piling up and he was feeling overwhelmed.

But Hlatshwayo said whenever he got discouraged he always remembered where he came from.

“My options were already limited. I had seen the importance of studying and chances were if I studied I would be someone in the future. I had to hang on no matter how difficult.”

Hlatshwayo believes that since he has been at the university, improvements have been made.

Since his first year, money has been invested in programmes like Jaws, Braille and Open Book software, all programs designed to make life easier for the visually impaired.

Today Hlatshwayo’s challenge is getting someone to look beyond his blindness to give him a job.

He has applied for internships and contacted various institutions like the Legal Aid Board, but always gets the same response — they don’t have policies or resources to cater for the visually impaired.

“I’m not asking for anyone to hire me because I’m disabled but don’t use my blindness against me. Section 9 of the Constitution speaks against discriminating because of race, gender or disability. Our government is always encouraging people with disabilities to apply for work, but I’m not sure these policies really work. The way I see it is what you do rather than what you say, or how many times you say it.”

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