Whether you were born disabled or, like me, suffered an accident which deprived you of your bodily function, you have probably had a moment where someone has doubted you. Maybe that person was you, yourself? We all have dreams. Some dreams are bigger than others but, for some reason, when a disability is thrown into the mix, our potential to realize our potential is questioned. I recently attended an event which challenged me to question my doubt. What if I’ve been selling myself short? SEDA would probably say that the possibility exists. They would in all likelihood say that anything is possible and nothing should be dismissed.
My day began as any other with me making use of Cape Town’s fantastic MyCiti bus service to take me from home to the venue for the day, Ratanga Junction. A mostly uneventful 90 minute trip on three buses delivered me to a parking lot where, momentarily, it seemed as though I would have to brave a 400 meter “walk” in my chair across an area I was wholly unfamiliar with. Happily, I had only just set off when a shuttle approached which our hosts had arranged. This last leg of my journey may only have lasted a matter of seconds, but it was very much appreciated nonetheless.
Upon arrival, I signed in and learned that, instead of being late, I actually still had a half hour to enjoy a continental breakfast of sorts before proceedings began. I found a table and was presented with an assortment of baked odds and ends, and a much needed cup of filter coffee. I was finally ready to face the day. As it turned out, my timing was perfect as I’d only just finished eating when I was ushered into the venue. Apparently, I was one of the last to arrive, but I found a spot at a table and waited for things to start.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect and was pleasantly surprised as the sentiment from the start was one of positivity. “This may be a seminar for persons with disabilities but it’s not about disability.” Clearly, I was among kindred spirits. Our hosts, the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) stated plainly that the South African government were very much in favour of developing small businesses. That was the function of SEDA. I felt a sense of optimism welling up inside of me. Considering how hard I’d fought to get where I am, it was good to know that the State would partner with others like me in the pursuit of a better future for all. The day was looking bright.
The first speaker of the day was introduced as Bernadette Rigney, and her talk was entitled “Knowing your Rights in the Workplace & the Ability to Live Life Fabulously”. Judging by her credentials, I had a strong suspicion that she would have something to say that I wanted to hear. As it turns out, she is a walking embodiment of the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Kicking off, this tiny woman, born with Arthrogryposis, introduced herself with a brief recollection of her working life in the facilitation of accessibility in Johannesburg. She then went on to tell of her business, Fability, a start-up which she hopes to use as a vehicle for improving Disability Awareness and creating new opportunities for Persons with Disabilities as well as organizations and businesses. As she expounded on her vision and her career up to this point, it became abundantly clear that she was a true giant in her field. I couldn’t help but smile. Her story was one of determination, hard work, and breaking down barriers on the way to success. It was all about living fabulously. Somehow, I really got a sense of what that meant.
The second speaker followed shortly after the first. Mogamat Reza Gallant, while not disabled himself, came with an equally impressive resume as the speaker before him. Under the heading “Entrepreneurship and Supplier Development”, he set about describing his business, Shanduka Black Umbrellas, as an entrepreneurial incubator. He and his team foster fledgling black businesses from inception to success. Quoting statistics such as “75% of the country’s population only contribute 12% of its GDP”, he went on to make the argument for the imperative of his business’ BEE philosophy. For the first time, I questioned the rationale being described. While telling me that someone like myself, a white man with a disability, would be welcomed by his organization in the capacity of a mentor, I kept running my own statistics through my mind. Only one percent of the disabled community are gainfully employed, and of those, 85% are wheelchair users. Disability knows no race. To attempt to marry persons with disabilities into the wider society and have a “one size fits all” approach with regard to furthering this demographic along BEE lines seemed indicative of a lack of understanding of the meaning of “special needs”. My work with APD has shown me, if nothing else, that those living with disabilities all have needs individually first, as a unique demographic second, and along racial lines as an afterthought, if at all. While one may be able to argue a case in terms of access to resources, or socio-economics, the message Mr Gallant was sending made it plain that his organization invested in people through stewardship and mentorship, not through financial intervention. Of course, I would be happy to offer my experience to anyone who asked for a hand up, but I think a sensitization talk would be a good precursor.
After a most welcome break, the programme commenced once again. While the lady from SARS who had been scheduled to speak had submitted a last minute cancellation, a gentleman was on hand to speak on “Small Business Corporation and Income Tax Deductions”. Speaking virtually entirely off the cuff, he laid out what SARS expected from SMME’s with regards to tax compliance especially those who were attempting to tender for public sector contracts. It was very informative but, if I must be honest, it would have been nice to get it “from the horse’s mouth”, so to speak.
Last, but certainly not least, it was the turn of Jabulile Ngwenya, a lady well known to APD through her association with Casual Day. Her topic was “A Disability Doesn’t Have to Stop You From Conquering the Business World.” This remarkable lady was born deaf in a time when the world was a very difficult place for someone with a hearing impairment, far moreso than it is today. Studying to become a journalist, she didn’t let her disability define her or her future. She endeavoured to make the best use of that which she had instead of obsessing about her limitations. It was this “can do” approach that allowed her to surprise the world and smash barriers and stereotypes. I experienced her message as a massive affirmation to how I view myself. She certainly put an exclamation mark on the day’s proceedings.
Lunch was spent in getting to know a few of the remarkable people around the room. I was blown away at the personal stories I heard. The lasting impression I was left with was that it was an absolute fallacy to speak of persons with disabilities as a drain on society and its resources. Here I was, surrounded by persons with a myriad of physical, mental and emotional challenges, who not only weren’t a drain in any way, but who actively sought to improve society through their own actions. These weren’t charity seekers. These were leaders.