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Reconceptualising Disabilities and Inclusivity for the Postdigital Era: Recommendations to Educational Leaders

Department of Educational Leadership and Management, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg 2006, South Africa
Educ. Sci. 2023, 13(1), 51;
Submission received: 24 November 2022 / Revised: 28 December 2022 / Accepted: 28 December 2022 / Published: 3 January 2023
(This article belongs to the Topic Education and Digital Societies for a Sustainable World)


Inclusive education is pivotal to sustainable development in different parts of the world. This perhaps accounts for its inclusion in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in SDG4, which targets inclusive education. Meanwhile, inclusive education has predominantly dimensioned physically challenged or impaired learners. However, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden transition to online teaching and learning, the quest for a different dimension of inclusive education, especially with regard to technology, is on the increase. This paper investigates how inclusive education is presented in scholarly published articles in the South African context. Five phases of a scoping review, namely, identification, finding/searching, choosing, extraction/charting and collation, were adapted for the review. From a search using the terms “inclusive” AND “distance” AND “education” AND “disability” AND “South Africa”, a corpus of 73 scholarly published articles was identified. Using different selection criteria, such as specific context of the review, 55 articles were deleted. Thus, a final corpus of 18 articles was analysed. From the reviewed relevant literature, themes were generated after retrieved information had been coded and categorised. The review indicated that the focus on inclusive education in the South African context is directed towards physically impaired or challenged persons. The paper recommends that in the context of distance education and with the sudden transition to online teaching and learning, lack of access to technology such as computers and Wi-Fi, among others, can constitute a technological disability. Thus, inclusive education in the dimension of technological disability should be explored to enable the leadership of education systems in providing the required assistance.

1. Introduction

Transforming the higher education sector in alignment with “the South African Constitution has led to increased enrolments of learners with disabilities” [1] (p. 18). Similarly, Isaacs (2020) [2] states that “over the last four decades, increasing numbers of disabled learners have entered institutions of higher education worldwide. Since 1994, the South African Government has been committed to transforming educational policy to redress the past oppression of disabled persons” (p. 58). This suggests following the long history of apartheid in South Africa prior to 1994, the extent to which the nation attempts to cater for persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusivity in the higher education sector. Additionally, it can be viewed from the perspective of the nation attempting to follow the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 of the United Nations (2015) [3], which is targeted at ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. In the South African context, McKenzie and Dalton (2020) [4] (p. 1) states that “South Africa has undertaken the implementation of inclusive education as a vehicle for achieving enhanced educational outcomes and equity”. This is indicative of the extent to which inclusive education is embraced and upheld in the nation. In congruence, [5] emphasize that “the policy of inclusion is one of the key policies enacted by the Department of Education in South Africa since the demise of apartheid” (p. 561). In furtherance, from a historical point of view, McKenzie and Dalton (2020) [4] (p. 1), citing [6], state that “… with the advent of democracy in South Africa, issues of curriculum change and provision of quality education to all children of all race groups assumed a high priority, largely because of the preferential treatment of white children under apartheid”. McKenzie and Dalton (2020) [4] further state that “an overhaul of the entire education system was undertaken, and this included a reconsideration of special education and educational support” (p. 2). In South Africa, although schools as well as educators in the context of this review are doing their best to ensure inclusivity in education, certain challenges tend to affect efforts made [7]. However, Morrison, Brand and Cilliers (2009) [8] earlier stated that “dealing with the special needs of learners with disabilities brings new challenges to institutions” (p. 202). This suggests that while challenges are being resolved, there are tendencies for more to emanate. Thus, schools which aim at receiving recognition for more inclusivity need a proactive approach which cuts across the entire institutional environment [8].

1.1. Factors Hampering Inclusivity in Schools

Sequel to reviewed literature, some factors were identified as affecting inclusivity in education. These factors may be relevant to other related areas in the field of education, however, in the context of this review, the focus remains on inclusivity in distance learning. The factors are:
  • Institution’s non-awareness of the existence of learners with disabilities and/or inability to identify such learners due to lack of clear procedures [9];
  • Inability of learners with disabilities to access learning materials [9];
  • Learning barriers experienced by learners [10];
  • The physical structures of schools or access to campus locations [8];
  • The adopted approach of teaching, assessment and information dissemination [8];
  • Socio-cultural or attitudinal climate defined by mainstream learners and staff [8] (p. 202);
  • Lack of support from stakeholders such as parents, negative attitudes from learners’, as well as examination and result-oriented systems [5];
  • Lack of motivation, learners’ negative thoughts and feelings towards certain subjects considered difficult, and learners’ state of being disengaged [11];
  • Academic faculty’s lack of knowledge on how to facilitate inclusive learning [12];
  • Limited resources or lack of resources or infrastructure and time [7,13,14,15].

1.2. Factors Promoting Inclusivity in Education

Review of the work of [16] indicates that certain factors are capable of ensuring inclusivity, especially in the context of a physically impaired or challenged student. The identified factors may be relevant to other related areas in the field of education; however, in the context of this review, the focus is on inclusivity in distance learning. Among the factors are the following:
  • Availability of tutors capable of committing a large amount of time to help learners understand content presented in class;
  • Quality tutorials;
  • Quality practical sessions;
  • A well-resourced and effective disability unit;
  • Educators who will ensure that learners are well accommodated in class, tutorials and practical sessions. For instance, Lourens and Swartz (2020) [17] state that “despite stringent policies, educators still have the power to decide whether they want to accommodate learners with reasonable requests” (p. 320). This suggests that educators have pivotal roles to perform in ensuring the success of physically challenged learners. In congruence, Zongozzi (2020) [9] reinforces the fact that in some instances in the South African context, educators lack the capability to support learners with disabilities, and this affects the learning abilities, as well as the academic performances of such learners);
  • Learners’ dedication and commitment to learn;
  • Institution’s awareness of the existence of learners with disabilities and/or ability to identify such learners using clear procedures [9].
The foregoing shows efforts made in embracing and promoting inclusive education regardless of the promoting and demotivating factors. However, with the turn of events due to the COVID-19 pandemic, following the sudden transition to online teaching and learning, a new type of inclusivity in education is to be demanded as different learners seemed to have been left out [18]. For instance, according to [19] making reference to the work of [20], “a COVID-19 rapid-response survey of 98 countries around the world discovered that higher learning institutions began teaching online through a variety of platforms such as television and radio broadcasting of lessons, and putting in place innovations such as socially distancing proof hubs and centers” (pp. 140–141).
De Klerk and Palmer (2021) [13], alluding to the work of [14], state that “the acquisition of digital literacy skills became difficult to fully pursue and, given the restricted resources and time, constant digital challenges morphed into new forms of educational inequalities” (p. 13). Meanwhile, focus, in terms of inclusivity in education, continues to linger around people mainly with physical disabilities, leaving out other marginalized persons due to lack of technology savvy. Hence, the reason for this review is to investigate the subject of inclusivity in distance education from the dimension of technology use, in the context of South Africa and possibly by extension developing and underdeveloped countries of the world where access to technology remains a struggle. The review is guided by the research question: What is inclusivity in distance education from the dimension of access to technology, technology disability and skills? The remaining part of the article is sectioned as such: contextualization of terms, the materials and methods adopted in the review, otherwise called ‘the protocol’ in a scoping review, results, discussion, and conclusion.

1.3. Contextualization of Terms

1.3.1. Inclusion

This is described by scholars in different ways. For instance, Moleko (2021) [11] views inclusion from the point of view of educators ensuring that learners are carried along when teaching specific subjects which are consider difficult and tend to be demotivating. Malebese, Tlali and Mahlomaholo (2019) [15] view inclusion from a social context. In other words, learners are to be integrated into the teaching and learning environments using social strategies. According to [21], the best results can be achieved when institutions of learning have the authority to formulate their own way(s) of practicing inclusion in their approaches to teaching and learning. In the context of this review, inclusion is considered from a technology standpoint; hence, it is used to mean ensuring that all learners are carried along with the advancement of technology and transition of teaching and learning from onsite to online. This is regardless of their location, which can be rural or urban, and socio-economic status, among other factors.

1.3.2. Postdigital Era

A postdigital era according to author [22] implies a period when technology use will be highly upheld and considered as the standard norm for achieving tasks. During this era, blended learning is envisaged to be experienced more in different parts of the world compared to what is currently obtainable [23,24,25]. In the context of this review, postdigital is seen as an era that there would be more concern for human beings than technology. It is similar to the perception of being "undigital" that is a case where society and technology advance beyond the limitations of digitalization in order to attain a completely fluid multimediated reality. This reality is envisaged to be void of digital computation artefacts. Postdigital era in this study is one that is concerned with fast changing relationships between humans and digital technologies.

1.3.3. Disabilities

From the reviewed literature, disabilities common in institutions of learning which are to be taken into cognizance can be viewed from three perspectives: (1) auditory [26]; in furtherance, Isaacs (2020) [2] explains that there is a need to consider and include stuttering learners as one of those in the category of auditory disabled persons, so they should be catered for; (2) mobility [26,27,28,29], and (3) visual [26,29,30,31]. In this review, disability is viewed from the perspective of learners being incapable to learn due to lack of technological gadgets or skills to operate such where available.

2. Materials and Methods

A qualitative method was adopted for this review. Content analysis was used in analysing the retrieved articles. Luo (2021) [32] (p. 1) states that “content analysis is a research method used to identify patterns in recorded communication”. Hsieh and Shannon (2005) [33] hold the view that content analysis is widely used in qualitative research as a technique. In congruence, Columbia University (2019) [34] reports that “content analysis is a research tool used to determine the presence of certain words, themes, or concepts within some given qualitative data” (p. 1). However, in contrast, Luo (2021) [32] states that content analysis can be qualitative or quantitative. Thus, in this review, qualitative content analysis was adopted. Meanwhile, according to [35] (p. 69) and reported in [36], “there is no single right way to do content analysis. Instead, investigators must judge what methods are appropriate for their substantive problems” (p. 73). Thus, in this regard, content analysis is used in this scoping review. On the other hand, according to [37], a scoping review is predominantly conducted in order to identify existing gaps in an ongoing research and highlight different areas which demand additional probing. In this review, inclusive education with reference to technology as a major constraint and demand in the South Africa context is viewed as a subject which needs further probing. This is due to the fact that disability in inclusive education is majorly viewed from the point of physically challenged individuals, whereas in distance education, especially in the context of South Africa, disabilities can be viewed from access to technological gadgets and skills needs in the use of technology in teaching and learning in distance education. Content analysis was also adopted for the study in alignment with the adopted review method. Romund (2017) [37] reporting for the University of Manitoba, Canada, highlights five phases that are crucial and to be followed when conducting a scoping review. These phases which can be considered as steps are similar to the six stages recognized and adopted by [38] as well as [39]: identification of the research question(s), identification of relevant studies, study selection, charting the data, and collating, summarizing and reporting results, consultation exercise which is described as an optional stage. However, for the purpose of this study, the five steps put forward by [37] are followed. These are as explained below:
Step 1: Identification of the research question(s) as well as the domain which needs exploration. Following the submission of [37], and the position of other scholars such as [38] as well as [39], the researcher identified the research question guiding the study: What is inclusivity in distance education from the dimension of access to technology, technology disability and skills? The author considers the identified question as a domain which needs to be explored.
Step 2: Find (search) phase: Romund (2017 [37] in congruence with [38] as well as [39] states that having identified the research question of the study and domain which needs to be explored, there is need to find relevant studies using different electronic databases, websites, reference lists, conference proceedings, among others. For this study, search was performed on two databases known as Scopus and Web of Science (WoS). These two databases were selected following the submission of [40], which attributes them to being the big commercial, bibliographic databases for scholarly literature.
Step 3: Selection phase: At this stage, the researcher is expected to make choices of literature that are relevant to the identified research question(s). At this point, certain predetermined criteria are to be used for the inclusion of relevant articles and exclusion of those that are irrelevant. For this study, the search terms were: “inclusive” AND “distance” AND “education” AND “disability” AND “South Africa”. Following the search, published articles and conference articles were included, while books and book chapters were excluded. The reason for the inclusion of published articles and conference articles was because of the review process involved in journal and conference articles. The researcher believes journal articles and conference proceedings go through rigorous review compared with books and book chapters. Furthermore, at this phase, the author eliminated certain articles which were considered irrelevant following certain criteria such as not having inclusive in the main text, likewise not being in the specific context of South Africa which is the focus of the study. Thus, articles which were in the context of South Africa and had inclusive in the main text, not necessarily reference list were included for analysis in the study. Figure 1 shows the flow chart which indicates the initial and final corpus of articles.

3. Results

The results of the study are as presented below following the explanation from findings presented in Figure 1. The figure indicates how certain articles were excluded before ascertaining the final corpus. For instance, following the initial search, a corpus of an initial 73 articles was retrieved and downloaded; thereafter, the author sieved them all. For not being specifically in the context of South Africa which is the focus of the study, 32 articles were deleted, and the author was left with 41 articles. Subsequently, the author further deleted 23 articles for not being in the context of “inclusive education, and South Africa” and for not having “inclusive” in the text but in the reference. Thus, final corpus of 18 articles were considered useful for the study for having ‘inclusive’ and being in the context of South Africa.
Step 4: Extraction and/or chart phase: At this stage, the data from selected relevant studies are to be organised. In the context of this study, the researcher organised the final corpus of 18 relevant articles into how inclusion in education is considered and presented in different articles by various scholars. In the analysis of the final corpus of 18 articles adopted for this study, inclusion was presented and explained in the context of persons with disabilities. In the other three articles, inclusion was presented in each of them in the following contexts: inclusion as per teaching a particular subject considered difficult; inclusion in the context of rural schools and learners into learning activities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic; and inclusion in terms of social context. Table 1 below presents a summary of the contexts in which inclusion was presented in the 18 analysed corpora.
Step 5: Collation or summary phase: At this stage, the author summarizes the findings of the study. Sequel to the submission of [36], it is at this stage that the data can be coded, categorised, thereafter theme generated for explanation. Thus, in the context of this study, from the analysed final corpus of relevant literature themes were generated following the coding, and categorization from the submission of the scholars whose works were analysed. Each of the identified themes are presented and explained in the next section titled ‘discussion’.

4. Discussion

The discussion is guided by the research question of the study: What is inclusivity in distance education from the dimension of access to technology, technology disability and skills? and the generated themes from the analysed relevant literature.

4.1. Theme 1: Inclusivity in the Context of Historically Disadvantaged (Black) Persons

Although the study did not set out to explore issues of inclusivity in the context of historically disadvantaged persons, this emerged as a major theme following the analysed reviewed relevant literature. This theme suggests how inclusion is perceived and upheld in the nation. This could be as a result of its long history and various experiences with regard to apartheid. The works of [5] as well as [4] suggest that inclusivity in education in the context of South African education system entails the quest for providing quality education to black (historically disadvantaged) children based on how they were excluded under the apartheid government. Ngubane-Mokiwa and Zongozzi (2021) [19] alluding to the work of [41], presents it from the perspective of inequality state that “… the prevalence of inequalities in South Africa where previously disadvantaged students such as blacks, women, persons with disabilities, the rural and urban poor and adults who have missed out on opportunities to access higher education… (p. 137, italics added for emphasis)”. In congress, [5] citing the work of [42], state that “… the decentralization of education provided racially defined communities the legal means to preserve their privileges that schools have been much more successful at meeting the demand for racial desegregation than achieving the ideal of social integration and that messages forthcoming from ‘race’ affect black learners more negatively than other learners in South Africa (p. 566, italics added for emphasis)”. Meanwhile, [4] explaining that inclusivity should cater for ‘Special needs’ which are described as “… not only issues of disability but also include issues of economic, social and linguistic contexts, … (p. 2, italics added for emphasis)”. According to [19], lack of inclusivity in education with regard to the physically disabled persons brings about marginalization. Thus, certain courses are considered impossible for people who are physically disadvantaged. “The field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is a practical field that requires a lot of innovation and consideration … to reasonably accommodate students with disabilities… university not accommodating students with disabilities at the Science campus [19] (p. 145, italics added for emphasis)”.

4.2. Theme 2: Inclusivity in the Context of Physically Challenged (Disabled) Persons

The final corpus shows that more of the retrieved articles were directed towards physically challenged people. A reason for the high number of 15 articles in the final analysed corpus which focuses on inclusivity education in the context of persons with disabilities can be attributed to the work of [2] which suggests the high increase in the number of disabled learners being granted access to higher education institutions across the globe. Additionally, in the South African context, the commitment of the Government in the transformation of the policy of education in redressing previous oppressions of persons with disabilities as alluded to by [2] could be an attributed reason for the high number of 15 articles in the final corpus of this study. Meanwhile, inclusivity in the context of technology in education can assist in enabling teaching and learning practices for the physically challenged people. “… the application of COIL for students living with disabilities may transform their learning experiences and unlock new pathways for their development” [43] (p. 80). COIL which stands for collaborative online international learning. This suggests that while considering inclusivity in the context of technology in education in the postdigital era, the physically disabled would have been catered for.

4.3. Theme 3: Inclusivity—For Persons with Special Educational Needs (SEN)

Education is paramount for growth [44,45], it attempts to solve issues of inequalities as opportunities are made available to different people [46,47]. This is supported by [13] who state that “Education is broadly known as an indispensable apparatus for growth, a means of attaining equal opportunities, inclusion of the marginalized (p. 13, italics added for emphasis)”. However, this is not so in some instances where marginalization is made to thrive. For instance, De Klerk and Palmer (2021) [13] report that “Scholars acknowledge that the notion of inclusive education has moved beyond uniquely referring to persons with special educational needs (SEN) to extend to all persons at risk of exclusion or marginalization in society (p. 17, italics added for emphasis)”. This suggests that as important as education is and enhances growth, it can create some forms of marginalization. Thus, for such to be avoided, disability is to be considered from different points of views and consequently addressed. In other words, disability and the need for special education is to be explored beyond the group of people with physical disabilities. In other words, those in societies that are liable of marginalization in any form are to be considered also and duly assisted. In the context of this study, the case of people living in technologically marginalized areas with little or no internet connectivity, technological facilities, exposure, among others becomes paramount. For instance, according to [48], “In many countries, the heavy reliance on online learning and connectivity technologies to deliver education exacerbated learning inequalities because many governments did not have the policies, resources, or infrastructure… (par. 14)”. This suggests that while technology may be a useful tool in the attempt to fight and possibly eradicate inequality, it can be a source of marginalization, thereby widening the gap of inequality between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Suffice to state that inclusivity with regard to technology in education is a major subject matter which needs the attention of education stakeholders in order to address issues of marginalization, inequalities, development, among others.

4.4. Theme 4: Way Forward

Sequel to the studies of different authors of the relevant reviewed literature, some findings made by scholars in the context of inclusivity as per historically disadvantaged persons as well as persons with physical disabilities are adapted. However, for this study, the author adapts some of the submission considered suitable for inclusivity in the context of technology. Ref. [5] suggests that “… the Department of Education should adopt the inclusive model of [49]”. The model is presented below. The author of this paper attempted to explore the model and consider ways by which such can be adopted with regard to inclusivity and technology in the postdigital era.
According to the model presented in Figure 2, six major steps are to be considered. These are: orientation training, expanding access to schools, curriculum development and assessments, provision of resources, national advocacy campaigns, revision of legislation and policies. Adapting these steps to inclusivity with regard to technology in preparation for the postdigital era, it implies that there is need for all stakeholders in education inclusive of students, academic and non-academic staff to be oriented on the importance of the inclusion of technology in teaching and learning, thereafter, trained towards being able to adopt and put such to practice. Additionally, access to schools needs to be expanded; moreover, with technology, this would be more visible. Thus, guided teaching and learning can take place without students and teachers being present in the same physical location. McConkey (2014) [49] further emphasizes the need for curriculum development and assessment. In the context of this study, it implies that the curriculum would need be designed to accommodate relevant practices, needs and designs in the postdigital era. Meanwhile, such curriculum would need be assessed periodically to ensure its relevance. Provision of resources is another crucial phase of the model. Technological resources would be needed for the desired goals to be achieved. Thus, education stakeholders would need to ensure that the necessary resources needed to drive inclusivity of technology in education are made available. This is because lack of such can hamper the designed curriculum as well as the entire process of education in the era. Additionally, there would be need for national advocacy campaigns which promote the inclusion of technology in education during the postdigital era. This would enhance possible acceptance from different people as well as support. Additionally, revision of legislation and policies is required [49]. This implies that different relevant legislations and policies are to be revised to accommodate the inclusion of technology in education. This is in congruence with the submission of [5] who state that in ensuring inclusivity, “… teachers face challenges in their attempts to implement the policy of inclusive education in their teaching (p. 573)”. Thus, teachers are to be assisted in ensuring the implementation of policy of inclusive education. Thus, following the context of this review, policy on inclusive education with regard to technology should be considered and teachers should be assisted to ensure its implementation.
From the foregoing, the paper indicates that whilst 18 articles were considered relevant for the review, none presents inclusive education in South Africa in the context of technology. This implies that there is paucity of literature with regard to considering inclusivity in education in the context of technology.
In contrast to the findings of this review, the work of (deleted to enhance the integrity of review) is suggestive that inclusivity in the context of education in South Africa is to also involve the technologically disadvantaged. In this regard, as emphasis is placed on policies of inclusive education and support provided are targeted towards the physically disabled and marginalized people due to the long history of apartheid in South Africa, the same is to be done for the technologically disadvantaged. Meanwhile, according to the submission of [22], technology is expected to be the major standard in the postdigital era. In the same vein, the findings from the works of scholars such as [23,24] as well as [25] show that technology has a pivotal role to play during the postdigital era. This suggests the need for inclusivity in the context of education to be reconsidered to involve and make provisions for technologically impaired learners.

5. Conclusions

This scoping review shows that the focus on inclusivity in education as expected has been in the context of the disabled, in other words, persons with disabilities. In the context of South Africa, inclusivity in education may be attributed to the context of two dimensions, particularly of historically disadvantaged persons who are predominantly from black areas, and persons with disabilities. The scoping review therefore presents that inclusivity in the digital and/or postdigital eras is to be reconsidered and redefined. Sequel to the findings from the analysed relevant reviewed literature and submissions adapted from the work of scholars whose works were analysed, the following recommendations are made to educational leaders in specifically:
  • Distance education should be reconsidered to include issues revolving around disabilities in the context of technology. This could be as a result of learners’ lack of access to needed technological gadgets and technology such as computers, internet connectivity, technological skills and so forth.
  • Additionally, policies of inclusivity in education should be reviewed and revised to include technologically challenged persons.

6. Limitation and Further Suggestion of Study

The paper was limited to a scoping review using previously conducted research and published articles in the selected field in the context of South Africa. Thus, it is further suggested that similar study be conducted in this regard using a quantitative and/or qualitative or mixed method approach. Similarly, the study can be conducted in the context of some countries. Additionally, further study could be conducted with search terms which “distance education” rather than “distance” AND “education”. Additionally, the outcome of the study is much broader than inclusion and technology but rather the features of inclusivity in South Africa; thus, similar study can be replicated in other countries to explore how inclusivity is treated and presented.


This research received no external funding.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Searched articles and final corpus.
Figure 1. Searched articles and final corpus.
Education 13 00051 g001
Figure 2. Key strategies for inclusive education [49].
Figure 2. Key strategies for inclusive education [49].
Education 13 00051 g002
Table 1. The analysed corpora.
Table 1. The analysed corpora.
Context of InclusionNumber of Article(s)
Disabled people15
Teaching perceived difficult subjects1
Rural schools and learners into learning activities amidst COVID-19 pandemic1
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Uleanya, C. Reconceptualising Disabilities and Inclusivity for the Postdigital Era: Recommendations to Educational Leaders. Educ. Sci. 2023, 13, 51.

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Uleanya C. Reconceptualising Disabilities and Inclusivity for the Postdigital Era: Recommendations to Educational Leaders. Education Sciences. 2023; 13(1):51.

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Uleanya, Chinaza. 2023. "Reconceptualising Disabilities and Inclusivity for the Postdigital Era: Recommendations to Educational Leaders" Education Sciences 13, no. 1: 51.

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