Palesa Deejay Manaleng, a journalist for eNCA, cycled 2 200 km over 10 days as part of the One Chance At Life (OCAL) initiative, aimed at raising funds for children with disabilities in the Northern Cape. The journey started in Pretoria and ended in Cape Town, with the FNB 12-km run as a cool-down.
In an email to a friend, Palesa noted that the journey highlighted the lack of accessibility for people with disabilities in South Africa. ROLLING INSPIRATION caught up with Palesa to learn more about what the journey meant to her.
RI: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced on this journey? And how did you overcome them?
P: I think the biggest was access to the bathrooms. Being a paraplegic, I have a toilet routine; if I don’t follow it, it becomes a disaster. I overcame the problem by asking my team members to carry me in and out of the available toilets.
Another challenge for me was mainly a mental one. There were six of us using a camper van, at times nine if the camera crew joined us, and I was carried into the back every morning and put on the bed furthest from the door. I would sit or lie in the back until it was my turn to cycle.
Unlike the other team members, I could not step out whenever the vehicle stopped or walk around to stretch my legs. I had to stop myself from screaming in frustration by going inside my head and imagining how it would have felt to be outside for a moment.
You mentioned that the journey highlighted the lack of accessibility in South Africa. What else did you learn?
I learned that people are afraid of disability. I say this because I had a teammate on the journey who was really afraid to be around me on her own. She was reluctant to help me, because she was terrified that she would do something wrong and hurt me. I had to slowly show her that I won’t break.
One night I deliberately asked her to help get me out of the bath. She was crying as she did it, because she was afraid she was hurting me; she said perhaps she should ask someone else to come. I refused. Instead, I talked her through the process as I held on tightly to the edge of the bath and she managed it.
I learned that people don’t understand what accessibility really is and how important it is. Society puts up half-assed ramps that no one can use as a way to shut us up. Then they can say, “But at least we tried.” I spent one night in an “accessible” room. For the most part it was, except for two things: the step going into the room and the wardrobe that was placed in the bathroom between the toilet and bath. The person I was sharing the room with said to me: “They probably thought that you would be able to stand up and hop to the toilet, then the bath.” She told me that, until I explained to her what being a paraplegic means, she always assumed that people who use wheelchairs can stand or walk for short distances.
This experience showed me that people don’t understand how people’s abilities differ. People with disabilities need to teach society, while also fighting for their right to be in public spaces.
How do you plan to use sport as a way to educate people about accessibility?
Sport, like music, is a universal language. People understand what they see, not what they are told. By going into different spaces as an athlete, I’m able to show parents and children that anything is possible. Once society understands that wheelchair users can participate in sports and excel, the next conversation becomes where they train.
The discussion moves to the accessibility of stadiums and gyms, which also raises the question of how para athletes can get to these places. So then we’re talking about transportation and the need for it to be accessible. For example, my coach and I get asked questions while training in Johannesburg, especially the CBD.
We are asked why I’m lying down, where I train, where I purchase my equipment, will their children be able to do what I can. To the last question, I always say: “Yes, and even more, if you allow them.”
How do you think the representation of people with disabilities can be improved?
I think that the first thing that needs to be done is that we need to stop building schools especially for children with physical disabilities and put those children in the same schools as able-bodied children. Normalise being differently abled.
We need to fight for government and private schools to be made accessible in every way. If my problem is that I can’t walk, why am I separated from society? Once the children get used to being around each other in school spaces, they find it easy to be around each other in work places.
Next, we need differently abled people to be the ones anchoring the news, taking leading acting roles, being president… Most importantly, society needs to stop treating people with disabilities as if they will break and instead push them to perform to the best of their ability just like they push everyone else.
You would like to compete in the Paralympic Games. What motivated you to do this?
I have been obsessed with sport since I was very young. I originally thought I would go to the Olympics for hockey or soccer during my school years. Then, in my twenties, before my accident, my mind was on representing South Africa in running marathons and cycling. So, it was only natural for me to want to represent the country at the Paralympics.
I also think I need to do it for the millions of children in the townships and rural areas who have only a handful of people they can relate to at that level.
I would like to know what’s being done to make spaces accessible beyond Cape Town and Johannesburg. I would like people to fight to make sure we have proper access to jobs as differently abled persons and to ensure we are paid fairly.
I don’t know who represents us in government. Why aren’t these people known to the public? Are there people checking that tertiary institutions are accessible? If there are, they are failing miserably. I feel like society treats disability as if it’s for the elite, for those who have and can afford.
What happens to children who can’t afford to be sent to boarding schools for differently abled children and can’t get to school because they are in a wheelchair? Why are we importing sports equipment and not manufacturing it?
How dare we make sports for those who can afford it or are lucky enough to find a sponsor when sport teaches teamwork, builds confidence and teaches children to strive to be their best while learning to win and lose in life? Why are we allowing society to teach parents that a child with a disability is worth nothing more than the grant money?
Yes, I have seen how things have changed, but I am not satisfied and I won’t be satisfied until there are no more children being pushed around in wheelbarrows or locked up in back rooms because they are seen as a bad luck. Sometimes I wonder whether society is failing us or we are failing ourselves by allowing society to dictate our worth as human beings.
What advice do you have for youngsters with disabilities?
Don’t you dare feel sorry for yourself! There is nothing wrong with you. Remember everyone in this world has a different ability and that’s what makes us differently abled. Just use the super-powers that you were given to reach your goals.
To read more about Palesa’s journey, read her blog at Beyond Accessibility.