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I am quadriplegic but that doesn't mean I am disabled'

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    I am quadriplegic but that doesn't mean I am disabled'

    quadriplegic but that doesn't mean I am disabled'

    South Africa.

    "Environments make you disabled, not the fact that you use a wheelchair," says Quadriplegic Association of South Africa (Qasa) national director Ari Seirlis, who gave the college lecture on the local university campus last Wednesday. "Lack of access is what makes me disabled more than anything else."

    There was a graphic demonstration of what he was talking about at the rear entrance to the Old Arts building - a low step. "It's just one step but that makes the difference whether I get into this hall or not."

    Seirlis owns and runs a signage company but admits it's taking strain since he began "working on my passion - serving the disability community".

    Seirlis became a quadriplegic in a diving accident 18 years ago. He did much voluntary work for the Spinal Injury Support Group and spent five years as KwaZulu-Natal chairman of the Quadriplegic Association. As Qasa national director for the last two years, he has boosted the organisation's international profile and forged a friendship with Christopher Reeve, the former Superman who became quadriplegic in a 1995 riding accident.

    "I contacted the Christopher Reeve Foundation, which expressed interest in our work, and I visited him in November 2000," says Seirlis. "We spent time together and as a result I got to know him more than just via letter and e-mail. He agreed to appear in our TV commercial for fund-raising."

    Seirlis also attended Reeves' 50th birthday party last year. "My visits to the U.S. in a wheelchair also gave me the opportunity of going to the top of the World Trade Centre and, two years later, to visit Ground Zero.

    "I became interested in how many people in the World Trade Centre had wheelchairs and how many survived. It was relevant to my interest in the subject of the evacuation of disabled people.

    "As far as I have been able to find out 20 people in the World Trade Centre were in wheelchairs. Two stories stand out. There was the man who was carried down 69 floors by his colleagues in an evacuation chair. In the other instance, a disabled person's helper refused to leave his disabled friend when damage to the building made his evacuation impossible. They died together."

    In the U.S. the needs of the disabled are factored into the design of buildings. "How you get disabled people out in the event of an emergency is worked out before they let anyone into a building."

    Seirlis showed brief video clips of his two visits to the World Trade Centre site during his lecture "From the World Trade Centre Twin Towers to the Ivory Tower: Reflections on living in disabling environments".

    South Africa currently qualifies as a disabling environment. "The Building Act says only buildings of four floors or higher must have lifts. This clashes with the Employment Equity Act, which outlaws discrimination in the workplace, as well as with the Constitution. Current building regulations discriminate against disabled people.

    "If we are serious about levelling the playing fields we need to provide access for the disability community to the public transport system. Not everyone wants to - or can - drive a car. Secondly, we need to rewrite the national building regulations."

    Good design benefits everybody, says Seirlis, recalling a query he dealt with from a tyre company looking for a wheelchair designer. "The design is pretty much fixed - people might make them slimmer or lighter, different colours, but that's about it. Why did she want a designer? She wanted someone to design a tall wheelchair so a disabled salesman could operate at counter height.

    "I didn't know what to say - at least she was considering disabled people. I suggested she cut down the counters and provide some chairs for customers on the other side - you usually have quite a wait at such companies. That way customers would be comfortable as well. Universal design principles - which are about creating products and environments we can all use - benefit not only the disabled but everyone else too."

    According to Seirlis, there are 10 000 South Africans in wheelchairs. "My chair is the first thing I look for in the morning. I have a disability but I have mobility - yet it keeps me out of workplace. I'm labelled into a bracket of non-performance.

    "I frequently get calls from agencies saying they want to employ disabled people - but not if they are in wheelchairs! I ask them: 'Are you employing a body, a shape or intellectual property?' You employ people for what they know.

    "Take this varsity campus. If Stephen Hawking were to spend a sabbatical year here you would see builders on campus very quickly. You can't put a price on what intellectual property is worth. But why wait for Hawking?"

    Not that Seirlis intends waiting for anybody. A keen rugby supporter, he and a group of friends have a suite at King's Park specially kitted out for disabled people, the first of its kind in the world. "It's called the Amasondo suite - that's Zulu for wheels."

    A sportsman before and after his injury, Seirlis lists scuba diving, bunjee jumping and fly-fishing among his activities.

    "The challenge of fly-fishing is to decide what fly to present on the water," says Seirlis. "I don't think how do I get to the dam? Is it rocky? I think about what time of day I will be fishing, what time of year, what colour flies are on the water. I don't think about the physical aspect. That's a small problem you sort out when you get there.

    "I'm quadriplegic but that doesn't mean I am disabled. You decide whether you are disabled. You decide whether you are confined to a wheelchair or whether it is a tool of mobility. You will never find the phrase 'confined to a wheelchair' coming out of my mouth."

    Publish Date: 29 May 2003


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    Well, you can have all the accessibility laws you want, but if they don't get enforced you have nothing. My son attended school in Georgia where in this one county alone 1600 classrooms were inaccessible because they refused to build any ramps to the classrooms in Trailers. Wish Christopher Reeve would have visited, to point out the large scale violation of ADA laws.
    The Office of Civil Rights has been absolutely useless in this. They have been "investigating" my complaint now for almost 2 years, with no reported findings as yet!
    My son Jason, a sixth grader had been placed in a 7th grade classroom because the sixth grade classrooms were all in trailers not accessible to him, since he is quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair.
    Despite a lot of media attention this case got, there are still no ramps to 1600 class rooms which remain inaccessible to anyone of the PUBLIC with a mobility problem. THESE ARE PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND SHOULD BE COMPLIANT WITH THE ADA !!!!!!


      Hi Faye, Its been a while since i've dealt with ada-enforcemant-access, so i'm near no expert and this advice i always go lasts, but it may be time to find a ada lawyer and threaten suit or just do it. i will ask a friend who knows more and get back to you, cuz i know there is another process that gets action. if i drop off, get after me. ok

      2010 SCINet Clinical Trial Support Squad Member

      "You kids and your cures, why back when I was injured they gave us a wheelchair and that's the way it was and we liked it!" Grumpy Old Man

      .."i used to be able to goof around so much because i knew Superman had my back. now all i've got is his example -- and that's gonna have to be enough."