Thulani Tshabalala, general manager of the Thabo Mbeki Development Trust for Disabled People was paralysed after a stabbing incident in 1980.
Reflecting on the period after the stabbing Thulani explains that he initially did not want to be identified with disabled people. "I was 21-years-old when I was stabbed. Back then there were no rehabilitation centres, never mind counselling. I was told I would live for 10 years and then die."
He was also told by a doctor in hospital that there was no point in moving to Natalspruit Hospital as it could not offer him anything more than Baragawnath Hospital. Left with no other choices, he went home.
As he was a still young he went back to school, which he had left during the uprisings of 1976 to sell soft goods - clothing. At the time the paraplegics in Soweto were organising themselves. I wanted nothing to do with any of it. I wanted to carry on with my life, selling soft goods, go back to school and hang out with my friends.
His approach to life changed dramatically when he met Marilyn Sadie. Marilyn, an occupational therapist, persuaded me to go to Natalspruit for rehabilitation. While my family had been very supportive there was a lot of pressure on me from them, and my friends, that I could walk again. I, however, understood this was not going to happen.
He spent two years at Natalspruit and while it offered nothing more than the hospital – just as the doctor had said –he helped Marilyn start peer groups.
“When Marilyn left there to join the Self Help Association of Paraplegics (SHAP), she asked me to join her. I was stubborn and didn’t want to, so instead I did volunteer work for the organisation twice a week.
“I guess that is where my involvement in the disability sector began. It was my learning curve and where I learnt the skills to do what I do today.”
However, he was not happy. “I was lonely – my girlfriend and I had broken up. I now saw that I was disabled and while I had every comfort around me, a supportive family and great group of friends, they did not understand my situation. They thought I was happy, I wasn’t. I was faced a choice: either kill myself or continue.”
He chose to continue, enrolling in a business administration course at Access College. He followed this up with a correspondence course through the Institute for Business Studies.
“While I was now occupied, I was still not happy. Before the stabbing I had mapped out my life. I would finish school, and then go to varsity, but that had changed - dramatically.”
While he was at Access College, Marilyn left SHAP and he was approached to take over from where she had left off. “At the same time I was offered a job at the Credit Bureau. I chose SHAP because I did not have transport to get to the Bureau.”
In 1995 he took up the position of service co-ordinator and HR manager at SHAP. He hasn’t looked back since. While he would like to embrace new challenges in the future he does not want to stop working in the disability sector.
“I am married and have five-year old twins. I am toying with the idea of doing a degree in project management and then retirement.
“I know that I don’t want to move out of this sector. I would like to see, and anticipate, this sector uniting. It would make our work so much more effective. In real terms I would like to see us get to the stage where a disabled person would not struggle to achieve her or his goals. We could achieve this if all services for disabled people were streamlined properly.”