Dr. Lieketseng Ned, a researcher in Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Department of Global Health, was recently awarded a South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) early-career research grant to the value of R600 000 over three years for her research project entitled “Health system Covid-19 responses and experiences of people with disabilities and of disability and rehabilitation practitioners in the Eastern Cape Province”.
“Receiving this award is quite an achievement for me. It is a wonderful opportunity for growth for me as an early-career researcher, and it means that I can continue with a small project which I had started with seed funding from SU,” says Ned. “In 2020, I received the Rector’s Covid-19 seed funding to do a national survey on disability considerations during Covid-19. The award from the SAMRC enables not only continuity but also going into greater depth for this study.”
According to Ned, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated some of the already existing gaps and challenges in meeting the needs of people with disabilities. “People with disabilities continue to be an afterthought, both in the pandemic response and in measuring its effect on the citizens generally.”
Ned, who is also a senior lecturer at the Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies within SU’s Department of Global Health, will be collaborating with fellow academics and postgraduate students on the project. “This early-career research grant encourages capacity development between junior and senior academics as well as postgraduate students. I am therefore collaborating with Luphiwo Mduzana, who is a lecturer at Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape and also a PHD candidate at the Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies where I work. Prof Leslie Swartz, a professor of psychology at SU, will act as senior researcher and academic mentor to me. We also intend to specifically work with disabled people as co-researchers in the various activities,” she explains.
The findings of Ned’s initial national survey study indicated that vital disability-specific services were not regarded as essential during the initial hard lockdowns. “This placed people with disabilities at heightened risks. Some services were also not accessible, for example the change to online platforms was not accommodating to all.”
When it comes to participation in the study, Ned discovered how the use of virtual methods can potentially make a study inaccessible and less inclusive for people in more remote contexts.
“For example, we only had one respondent in the Eastern Cape,” she says. “With challenges such as a lack of technology, infrastructure and connectivity, different methodological approaches are needed to ensure that these voices are also heard. It is really important to me to produce research that will inform change in this province,” adds Ned, who originally hails from the Eastern Cape.
According to Ned, work on the project has already started. “We have started collating all Covid-19-related publicly available health documents (such as regulations and Covid-19 measures) in order to start document review and we are waiting for provincial permission to give us access to internal documents as well. Our aim is to analyse these documents to see how disability inclusion was considered in the regulations and service provision during Covid-19. We are also developing the scoping review protocol.”
Ned and her team aim to publish at least two papers every year, based on their three research objectives: 1) a scoping review of the South African health system’s response to Covid-19 in relation to disability and rehabilitation, 2) the effects of Covid-19 on rehabilitation service provision to people with disabilities, and 3) the implications of the pandemic on the needed ongoing disability and rehabilitation services at community levels.
Asked what she is hoping to achieve with her research, Ned answers: “The contribution of this study is in providing a knowledge base relevant to improving Covid-19 responses to be disability-inclusive. I am hoping to identify possible strategies and recommendations for disability-inclusive responses for the healthcare sector so as to not put persons with disabilities at more risk during pandemics.”
Photo caption: Dr Lieketseng Ned
Photo credit: Damien Schumann