Professor Marietjie Potgieter, of the Department of Chemistry at University of Pretoria (UP), still tears up when she recalls the standing ovation given to Zak Claassen when he graduated with his BSc (Human Genetics) degree cum laude. Claassen, a blind student, went on to achieve honours (also cum laude) in bioinformatics, and then his master’s degree in an eight-year journey that required much determination and perseverance in the face of adversity.
“In addition to his exceptional academic performance, Claassen’s ability to overcome challenges and flourish was a real highlight,” Prof Potgieter said. “You need a special kind of student to succeed in this way, someone who is talented in science and who has such a passion for the subject that they are willing to keep going and not give up while others try to figure out how best to support them. Training a blind student is a team effort and required the commitment of everyone involved, from the student and lecturers to UP’s Disability Unit, which impressed us throughout.”
Prof Potgieter was Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning in the Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS) Faculty during the period that Claassen studied for his BSc and BSc Honours degrees, and the decision on whether to admit him to enrol in the programme was one of the first big decisions she had to make after being appointed. Having monitored his progress during her tenure, she realised the value in sharing his story, and, together with Dr Rethabile Tekane, who was her postdoctoral student at the time (currently a lecturer for the Engineering Augmented Degree Programme ENGAGE at UP), they decided to conduct the first local study of successful teaching and learning strategies for a blind student in the natural sciences, based on Claassen’s experiences.
UP researchers Professor Marietjie Potgieter (left) and Dr Rethabile Tekane (centre) and Technical Officer at the Disability Unit Juan Erwee (right) were all part of student Zak Claassen’s academic journey.
An article on the project was published recently in the South African Journal of Science, and will also be featured in the UP Research Review of 2020. The study provides a guide that scholars, educators, university managers and policymakers can use to ensure that mathematics and science subjects are accessible to blind students and that teaching strategies allow them to perform to their potential.
In addition to cognitive ability, motivation, work ethic and perseverance on the part of the student, Dr Tekane said that their findings showed that several factors contributed towards the successful completion of Claassen’s degree. “These include the availability of tutors, who committed a large amount of time to help him understand content presented in lectures, tutorials and practical sessions; a well-resourced and effective Disability Unit, which provided him with office space for tutorials and worked with academic staff to convert study material, tests and exams to an accessible format; and lecturers who ensured that he was well accommodated and receiving the support he needed.”
Juan Erwee, Technical Officer at the Disability Unit, said that the unit’s relationship with Claassen began when he first approached the university while still in high school, and that throughout his studies there was close collaboration between the various parties involved, with Claassen included in the dialogue. “Sometimes you see someone who has potential but, for some reason, whether they lack ability or have a financial obstacle, are not able to achieve their goals. It was very rewarding in this case to see Claassen’s potential being actualised,” he said.
Potgieter said that they did not anticipate how challenging it would be to make mathematics accessible to Claassen, although they were amazed at his ability to do complicated calculations in his head.
Zak Claassen’s experiences inspired the first local study of successful teaching and learning strategies for a blind student in the natural sciences.
Claassen said that his now-retired maths lecturer was especially helpful and would often come to him while the other students were busy solving an example problem, and explain it to him. “When it came to assessments, if there was a question in a test requiring a drawing, I would describe it to my tutor, and they would draw it,” he said. He said he was also helped by fellow students in many ways. “My advice to other low vision students is that it is important to study what you are interested in and what you enjoy, otherwise the effort required will be too much,” he said.
The study conducted by Prof Potgieter and Dr Tekane was partially funded by a UP Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) grant, which they also used to register for and attend conferences where they disseminated their findings. “Our research demonstrated quite convincingly that the high demands of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) disciplines do not render them inaccessible to blind students. However, many involved in Claassen’s training acted out of goodwill, being largely unaware of his rights and the legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodation of his needs. This is not sustainable or scalable, and our experience highlights the need for raising disability awareness in the sector if progress is to be made to improve access and success of disabled students,” Tekane said.
Erwee agreed that all educational institutions need to strive towards a universal design, where the composition of an environment enables it to be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.