Martin Dombo, born in Kliptown, Gauteng, shares his birthday with the famous Freedom Charter. The third of six children, he grew up in the turbulent 70s. “I was a student in Orlando West at the time of the 1976 uprising. After that, some of us left the country and joined the African National Congress.”
Martin then studied in Bulgaria, where he obtained his Masters degree in agricultural economics. He later managed a huge farm in Tanzania, and, in the early 90s he assisted in the repatriation of several South Africans.
In 1997, while working for the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA), Martin was returning from Malawi where he was working on one of the DBSA projects.He was involved in a car accident and as a result he was left a C6 quadriplegic.
Because of the severity of his injuries, Martin spent three months in Milpark Hospital. “After overcoming my initial trauma, I realised that my hands, feet and body were not moving. Even my voice did not work. I could not feel any movement. I felt like a stump.
Am I going to be useless?
“I could only breathe through the respiratory device provided by the hospital. At this point, lying in bed, hospitalised, I could hear doctors talking to each other, not noticing that I was conscious, saying that I was going to be a "cabbage". I could visualise myself singing in the streets - the picture in my mind of people with disabilities asking for a few coins for survival. My question was: “Am I going to be useless?”
Then his voice returned. “I was as happy as a person who could walk again. My voice was a new discovery to me and I used it to find out as much as I could about myself and my condition.” It had been 90 days since Martin had arrived in hospital.
“With my voice back I became very optimistic that soon I would be sitting up and then walking. I never contemplated the idea that I was permanently disabled. Of course, this was not what happened, but it took longer for me to finally acknowledge my disability.”
While I knew I had a disability, I thought it was temporary. In the meantime I wanted to get on with my life regardless. I enquired to doctors and nurses, in fact anyone, about any kind of development and philosophy that could help me. I was very fortunate to find a nurse, who introduced me to someone who showed me a powerful voice recognition system: ‘Dragon Naturally Speaking: The Dragon Dictate’. This system allowed me to work on a computer through voice commands. The voice recognition system thrilled me. Today I am using Dragon version 7.3.”
That was also when Martin finally left hospital and entered rehabilitation at Selby Park Hospital for three months. “This was without doubt one of the most difficult periods in my life, the going-home phase. It was a training period. I would go home on weekends and then come back to rehabilitation for the week. Going home for weekends was painful as it only served to emphasis an environment that was now alien to me. I was acutely aware that I was not able to do what I previously did. I would spend the next week at hospital reviewing what I had done on the weekend.
“I realised that I would have to get some assistance. Having an assistant presented new challenges, I felt that I did not communicate properly with my assistant. I, therefore, had to learn to communicate and work together with the assistant and not order him around. So I developed a more patient form of communication. For example, instead of saying: “get that for me”, rather say, “Would you kindly hand me that”.
Philosophical approach to life
This was just one of the many learning curves Martin faced, but it was one which led him to realise something fundamental. “I realised that before I could learn to communicate with others I would first have to accept my situation. I would have to acknowledge that I was disabled and only then would I be able to effectively communicate my message. This changed my attitude to many other things, and for the last nine years I have developed a philosophical approach to life. This has given me the capacity to work for long hours.
“I run 44 farms that belong to my family. I am negotiating with government and other stakeholders to develop these into commercial farms for the surrounding community. I would like to see this area developed so that it contributes greatly to the national economy.”
Martin has continued to work for the DBSA since his accident, but as a human capital specialist with issues related to disabilities. “I research different issues of disabilities to understand these, so that the work environment is adjusted to suit these conditions. It also allows people in the workplace to understand the needs of people with disabilities and teaches communities to support people with these disabilities in the social environment.
“I try to make people aware that disability is physical, that it applies to the physical body and not on the mind”.
He also tackles everyday issues such as the lack of road and transport infrastructure and in the country for people with disabilities.” Without these two items in place, how do we expect people with disabilities to market themselves? We can only expect to see them in their backyards.”
But his greatest passion lies within the disability sector. “The disability sector is split into many different interest groups. I would like to see the disability sector united.
“The present government has taken a very strong initiative in affirming and creating strategic offices to support the disability sector and there is a need for the disability sector to reciprocate this process so that when government consults with the sector it is in its entirety (not consulting with famous individuals within the disability sector).
“The disability sector needs to come together and agree on local, regional and national structures. These structures should have specific programmes. If we spoke with one voice and built a proper network, we would be able to get support from government, the private sector and communities, and we could still maintain our unique characters within our groupings at the same time. These would be supported by a nationally elected body to communicate a common programme.
“For every disabled person to speak with dignity, we need to organise ourselves. My survival is everyone with a disability's survival.”