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Disabilities: to disclose or not to disclose?

Most students choose not to disclose their disabilities due to fear of stigmatisation and discrimination, leading to cases where some students hesitate to seek the support that they are entitled to, such as funding and access to assistive devices.

Leading disability researchers found that ‘successful’ transitioning for a person with a disability is dependent on the person disclosing their disability, so that institutions can provide reasonable accommodation.

Students’ predicament

A registered research psychologist and Unisa’s Chair of the Department of Psychology in the College of Human Sciences, Dr Fortunate Silinda, says some factors that cause delayed disclosure or non-disclosure of disabilities among students include the inability to access the information about available support structures in the university, and advice from family and friends not to disclose such status in an attempt to protect them from being victimised or stigmatised.

“Universities should prioritise students' mental wellness by capacitating student support structures with professionals who can help them with their mental health-related challenges,” says Silinda. “Also, family and friends can encourage students with special needs by reminding them of the benefits of disclosing their disability status as it is linked to their academic success.”

Institutions’ dilemma

Unisa’s Student Retention Unit (SRU) acknowledges that students have a right to choose not to disclose their disabilities, as some view it as a daunting task. However, in the absence of the relevant information it is virtually impossible for institutions to reach out to such students.

The SRU is housed within the Department of Tuition Support and Facilitation of Learning. Its key focus is to enhance the success and retention of students, with a mandate to implement and coordinate the First-Year Experience Programme. The purpose of the programme is to enhance student success and retention during the first year of study at the institution.

It is crucial for students who choose to disclose to do so upfront, specifically during the application and registration period in order to ensure provision of reasonable accommodation. Reasonable accommodation refers to necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments, as well as assistive devices and technology that seek to increase performance of students receiving such support.

What needs to change?

The Acting Deputy Director of Unisa's Advocacy and Resource Centre for Students with Disabilities (ARCSWiD), Professor Sindile Ngubane, adds that several changes need to take place for students with disabilities to feel comfortable to disclose their disability status. She elaborates: “This involves adoption of a positive social construction of disability, serious consequences for people who discriminate and stigmatise these students, and using universal design principles to facilitate equitable access at all levels of the university.”

For further enquiries regarding disclosing a disability, please contact ARCSWiD, which is a unit that focuses on the diverse needs of, and support for students with disabilities. They can be contacted via email at or visited online at


* Submitted by Ziyanda Febana, Student Success Practitioner, Unisa Student Retention Unit

* Content packaged by Nancy Legodi, Acting Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2021-02-22 00:00:00.0