Disability is an umbrella term that covers a range of mental, physical and sensory dispositions. Individuals affected not only face challenges in day to day life on a practical level, but on a social level too. Visual impairment is yet another umbrella term within the framework of disability that covers a range of conditions from partially sighted to completely blind and it is quite easy for a student suffering from a visual impairment, as with any disability, to feel isolated and discriminated against.
This is no different in an academic learning space like a university and many steps need to be taken to ensure support services are in place that cater to all needs and ensure that students suffering from disabilities are included as fully-fledged and integrated members of the entire student body. Stellenbosch University’s Disability Unit (DU) does just this and their vision, to create an enabling environment that holistically empowers students with disabilities to achieve their full potential, is growing from strength to strength with outstanding results. Maties Parasport athlete and Paralympian champion, Ilse Hayes, and PhD student and computer mastermind, Rynhardt Kruger, are perfect examples of making the impossible, possible and show that one needn’t have perfect sight in order to have perfect vision.
It was at the IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Brazil in April 2015 that Ilse Hayes became the fastest female Para-athlete in the world when she ran the 100m sprint in a remarkable 11:89 seconds, breaking the previous 11:99 record. This was a dream come true for the young athlete who was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease – a visual ailment that affects the central vision and ability to see basic detail – in 1996 at just 11 years old. Her passion for athletics started from a very young age and, though her condition deteriorated over the two years that followed, it stabilised when Hayes was 13 years old and at 15, she started participating competitively in disabled sports. “It really built a lot of character,” she says. “I mean, as an 11 year old you have a choice: are you going to sit in the corner or are you going to go on with life? I had really amazing support from my family and friends and I think that also made it much easier to accept it, move on and take every opportunity and make the most of it. Ever since then I have worked really hard to reach my potential.” Hayes has successfully completed her Sports Science degree with honours in Paediatrics at Stellenbosch University.
As a child, Rynhardt Kruger, though born with a severe retinal degenerative disease called Leber Congenital Amaurosis, had dreams of being a policeman and later, studying the beautiful intricacies of music. It was only when his parents gave him a computer which allowed him, through the use of assistive technology, to delve into the wonderful world of the digital society in which we all exist today, that he decided to pursue a life of computer programming and writing software that would enable other blind people to access this vast digital domain with more ease. “I remember playing an audio game, which is a game where everything is done in audio specifically for blind people and usually programmed by blind people, and I played this game and I wondered to myself, “How is this done? I have to learn how to do this.” It became my passion and still is,” he recalls. Kruger, now in his 7th year, is the first blind person at Stellenbosch University to obtain both his BSC Honours and Master’s degrees in Computer Science and is currently pursuing a PhD with a special focus on assistive technology – his fortitude spurred on by the fact that one needn’t be able to see to be able to keep up with advancements in information technology.
Both Kruger and Hayes, through the resolute support of Stellenbosch University and their own determination, have achieved above and beyond despite their disabilities and continue to push the bar of what others may have thought impossible. Opening her career with a gold medal at the world champs in France, Hayes continued to soar, travelling the world, breaking records and bringing home gold time and time again. “It is a really great honour to represent my country,” she says. “I’ve realised that if you really work hard then you can reach great heights.” Running in the T13 class of visually impaired athletes, this tenacious competitor participates in events that basically follow the same rules as able bodied athletes with eight people per race and no guides. Despite only being able to see about 2m in front of her (and even this doesn’t allow for clear detail), Hayes relies mostly on her clearer peripheral vision to get the finish line and, most often, she is the first one there.
Similarly, despite his inability to see, Kruger is breaking ground in an advanced field that poses challenges across the board, disability or no disability. For his Honours project in 2012, Kruger designed and developed a computer programme that enables blind musicians to read and study music on a computer without the need to print out sheets of music in braille. For his Masters project, which he completed in 2014, he helped develop a programme that allowed blind users to independently navigate through a virtual world known as Second Life. “Second life technology is used for conferences, for instance,” he explains. “Academic conferences where people can’t attend the same physical location but they can attend the same virtual world. So I wrote a client for that which uses sounds and speech synthesis to convey the state of the virtual world to a blind person.” His PhD topic, loosely, is to make scientific material accessible to blind people without any manual work from a third party person having to spend many painstaking weeks and even months converting formulas into braille. “We currently don’t have that many conversion units in South Africa or even the world and if you want to study science, you want to read it now,” he explains. “You don’t want to read it next month.”
Both Hayes and Kruger owe a lot of their success to the ongoing support and provisions made by Stellenbosch University to empower students with disabilities and give them a chance to succeed just like anyone else. “Stellenbosch University felt like a safe haven for me,” says Hayes. “Initially I was a bit scared of the unknown but I didn’t doubt that I would get the support I needed.” With advancements in technology and a more heightened sense of awareness, the campus continues to develop its infrastructure as well as its ability to support those with disabilities in any field they choose to study. “The university has come a long way in terms of support for disabled people and the university would do everything they can to support someone if they wanted to study any subject,” says Kruger. “It’s still evolving but it’s much better than it was five years ago, or even two years ago. Both for blind people who need special access to information and also for physically disabled people who need modifications to a building and so forth.”
When she is not on the track, Hayes can be found on campus working closely with children on a community project where her main focus is on motor development with sport as well as life skills. “Ultimately, the reason why I do athletics is to inspire and give people hope. Whether you’re disabled or not,” she says. Kruger can be found behind his trusty machine, researching and paving the way for a brighter and more accessible future for upcoming Maties at Stellenbosch University. “Assistive technology has become my passion over the last few years,” he says. “I would like to be at the forefront of this and help it evolve even if I just play a small part.”
Being a Matie has meant a lot for Hayes and Kruger and the very real sense of community that Stellenbosch creates for students, disabled or not, is something that resonates most with both of them. “I think to be a MATIE is to be part of an amazing community,” says Hayes. “There’s a reason I’m still at Stellenbosch even though I finished my studies four or five years ago. It’s one of those communities that will always make you feel at home. I’ve had the best years of my life here. I’ve built character here and grown as a person.” In the same way for Kruger, being a Matie is very much about being a part of something big. “It’s a space where a lot has happened over the years and it’s interesting to be part of that,” he says. “I was accepted into this fold and it’s really amazing and I think that’s part of being a Matie. That you respect each other and learn from each other even if people are very much different from yourself. I think that’s one of the best things you can do at university. Get exposure to as many kinds of people as you can possibly get.”