Reader Profile - A voice for the voiceless

In 1998, Manthipi Molamu-Rahloa was studying for her degree at the University of the North West (formerly known as the University of Bophuthatswana) when she was involved in an accident which made her a paraplegic, she was 21 years old. “I was taking a taxi to see my aunt in Umtata. The taxi driver fell asleep and collided with a truck. No-one died and I was the only person seriously injured. Ironically enough the accident happened only 10 kms from the Vryheid Hospital.

I was in the middle of the taxi – the third row, with my son on my lap and my brother sitting next to me – a seating I had thought would protect me from harm if there was an accident.”She was admitted to Vryheid Hospital where they operated on her. “I was unconscious, had a serious head injury and lost a lot of blood. Afterwards I was taken to Umtata and, three days later, flown to the Conradie Hospital in the Western Cape. There I stayed for a year.”

Her son was one and half years old at the time and stayed with her aunt for that year. Because of the severity of her head injury it took her a long time to heal. “My hands were also very seriously injured – I nearly lost both my thumbs. I also had intensive therapy on my hands for a long time. Only after my head was healed sufficiently could I start rehabilitation.”On top of everything else, she missed a year of schooling. But after her rehabilitation, she went back. “My family were very supportive and they moved to Mafikeng, not far from the university, so that I could pursue my studies. The support from my family was so important, that I cannot emphasise it enough. Two years before the accident, when I was 18 years old, my mother had passed away, so it was just me, my two brothers, my eight year old sister and my son.”The challenges at university changed her dreams. It was a constant battle – the university was not accessible; from bathrooms and classrooms to the administration building and the residences for students.

“My right hand – the one I wrote with – was so badly injured that I had to learn to write with my left hand. But, once I was back at university, I found I could not keep up writing with my left hand. So I went back to writing classes, this time for my right hand. As a result I missed another six months of University. Finally I went back and this time I did not stop until I completed my studies.” “I was supported by my lecturers, but never received favours. The university registrar was also very understanding and I was given a desk that could accommodate me, as well as extra time to complete examinations. These concessions were by no means out of preference, only out of assistance.”Her graduation was a turning point in her life. “I became very determined at graduation. When I went up to receive my degree I received a standing ovation. This told me one thing: I can in some way make a difference. In this one moment this thought flashed through my mind.”

This realisation was a watershed. “I had felt doomed after my accident, thinking that there was no life after disability. Again here, I want to say it was my family that also helped me through this, especially my one brother, who is very strong.” There was also another incident that changed her perception of disability. “During my studies one of my lecturers called me into her office. She confronted me with the words: ‘I don’t feel you.’ To be honest I thought she was being nasty. I thought: what does she want – I am trying to deal with what has happened and now she istalking to me like this. My shock turned to disbelief when she then said to me: ‘You will be the voice for the voiceless’.“What she was telling me was that I needed to be more vocal and stand up for myself and other people with disabilities. The flood gates opened and from that day on I became active in the disability arena. I had just needed that to get me started.” And she has never looked back. Previously she headed the Office on the Status of Disabled People in the Office of the Premier, North West Province. Originally from the North West Province she is a qualified social worker with an Honours Degree in Social Work and a Masters Degree in Public and Development Management.

Today she is the Director: Disability at the National Department of Social Development, a position she has filled since 2004. “The Disability unit within the Department develops policy regarding disability and develops a programme, on a National level, to meet the needs of disabled people. The focus is on the mainstreaming of disability towards the betterment of life for those who are disabled.”This means making sure that social services offered are provided and are of benefit to people with disabilities. There are a number of challenges in meeting these goals, as Manthipi further explains: “Programmes have been developed and implemented on Provincial level, but these are not aligned to the National Policy. To ensure equal, fair and proper service to people with disabilities throughout every province in the country we must define this service and ensure it is aligned to the International Disability Strategy (IND).”

The challenge is further exasperated because services need to be regulated, but there is no legislation to establish the framework for this regulation. “Presently the development of legislation on Social Services is being looked at to assist us. This would regulate our services and assist in adequately funding these services.”“Much of our support also comes from NGOs which we work in partnership with. However, not enough support is given to these organisations. With the majority of disability services coming from NGOs we need to give them better support.”“We have developed programmes and training manuals to guide service providers such as Government, and within NGOs as well, to ensure uniformity across the services.

” She says that service providers often mean well, many do not “have a clue about disability”. “We need to convert this commitment to knowledge that will help the service providers to provide services that are correct and of benefit for people with disabilities.

This, and the goal of increasing the public’s awareness of disability, is still some distance off“ but, says Manthipi: “we are dealing with these challenges on an ongoing basis. For example key role players provide services for the department, such as social workers on a National, Provincial, Regional and District level. Therefore social workers have in fact been declared a scarce skill
in South Africa.”

“The key focus is to increase quality of life for people with disabilities.

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