Traveling with a disability in South Africa and Europe

“No matter who you are or where you are travelling to, don’t hesitate to ask people for help.” This was one of the many travel tips given by incoming Dis-Maties (the student society for disabled students) vice-chair Karien Joubert at the final Dis-Maties talk on Tuesday, 3 October.

Joubert, a history masters student, spent a semester at Tübingen University in Germany this year as part of an exchange programme organised by Stellenbosch University.  “Tübingen is comparable to Stellenbosch in many respects. It’s not a huge town and every second person you see is a student, so it had a homely feeling for me,”  said Joubert.

Sarah van der Westhuizen and Karien Joubert discuss travelling as a student with a disability. PHOTO: DYLAN JACK

“If you ever go on exchange or want to go on exchange, find some groups with other exchange students because they can teach you interesting things and they know the area. They can also help organise outings,” Joubert added.

“I think as South Africans we fall into the trap of thinking the grass is always greener. Something that you must be aware of when you are travelling, especially when you are travelling with a disability, is that travelling to a place, even if it is the greatest first-world country, isn’t going to eliminate the disability obstacles that you face in everyday life, ” Joubert said.

While Joubert admits that society has made great strides with the social model of disability by focusing more on the environment than the individual, she still believes that people with disabilities face challenges in so-called first-world countries.

“I still had to have people carry me up the stairs at the bus. I still had to take a different route  that the other people were taking to get to the Bebenhausen Abbey because the original route went through a forest,” Joubert said about her experience in Germany.

Joubert also mentioned her experiences with the people in Germany and said: “In terms of disability, what I experienced overseas was equivalent to what I experienced in South Africa. By that I mean people are generally helpful and willing, but clueless.

“No matter where you go in the world as a disabled person, you will probably be the minority, so the majority people would not have had to interact with a disabled person before,” Joubert added.

Coordinator of student exchanges at Stellenbosch University, Sarah van der Westhuizen also spoke about travelling to different universities, saying: “ We see with our students with disabilities [that] within South Africa you know how to operate and don’t necessarily need to think about how to do something when you do it. When you are thrown into a new environment everything is reset and you have to find  your way again. That’s not a bad thing because you reevaluate what you know and reevaluate how you think about certain things, such as the ‘grass-is-greener’ notion.”

Van der Westhuizen added that the Global Education Center, which organises student exchanges with universities, found that their information is not accessible to disabled students. “We are working closely with the Disability Unit to provide information not only about general information about our partner schools, but also about the access and services that they can provide.”

Dis-Maties chair Bongani Mapumulo raised the issue of the difference between travelling in Europe and travelling in Africa saying: “There is a notion or a stereotype that it’s harder to travel within Africa than within Europe.”

Van der Westhuizen responded to that and said: “In some regards, that perception is correct and this relates to visas and passports. Getting a visa from a neighbouring African country can be more difficult than applying for a visa from Europe. In terms of the partners that we have in Africa, including Nairobi and Ghana, the perception that they can’t provide the same service as European Universities is completely incorrect.” -Dylan Jack

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