Fierce women with disabilities

To commemorate Women’s Month, we interview three fierce women with disabilities who challenge themselves to achieve inspiring goals

Dreams, however big or small, seem a lot more achievable when there are others who have accomplished it too. There are only a few women with disabilities who are in the public eye and can inspire their peers to follow suit.

But, inspiration can be among women from all walks of live – whether they are the host of a nationally broadcasted show, completing their PhD or improving their skills to secure employment.

Tarryn Tomlinson

From business woman to writer, Tarryn Tomlinson has a long list of passions that have become her career. She explains: “I have a number of passions that have become my businesses. I am a life coach specialising in teaching people how to utilise the Law of Attraction to make their dreams come true.

“I am also a writer. Prior to COVID-19, I was writing monthly articles on accessible travel for the award winning Mango Airlines in-flight magazine: Mango Juice (published by Mikateko media). I also have a consulting business, called LiveABLE which focuses on accessibility within the hospitality sector,” Tarryn adds.

She is a content creator under her brand Able2Travel, director for a television production company, The TV Smiths, and director of the subsidiary NPC called, The Human Project – the aim of which is to train and create more employment opportunities for persons with disabilities in the media industry.

She is also the presenter of the SABC 2 programme Activated. Tarryn explains: “Activated is a series which focuses on the human rights of persons with disabilities; how far we have come in our democracy towards the upholding of those rights; and how to plan for a better future.

“In the show we also look to remove the stigma of ‘inability’ when relating to persons with disabilities by showcasing a number of empowered and inspirational business people, artists, public servants and academics who have all contributed greatly to the disability movement of the past and future,” she adds.

The programme offers Tarryn the opportunity to be an advocate for people with disability, for racial and religious diversity.

“There are so many reasons why I love being the presenter of this show! The first reason is that I get to advocate for what I believe in: That all people are equal regardless of their colour, race, religion or physical differences,” Tarryn explains.

It also offers her the opportunity to learn more about disability and its related issues. She says: “I also love it because I have learned so much about the disability movement from the research and talks with guests. It has helped me get a pulse on the latest developments and on some of the amazing initiatives and programmes out there for persons who are differently-abled.

“Each week when I watch the show I am as inspired as everyone else and feel as empowered as everyone else. There are so many passionate, tenacious, courageous and creative people in our country and I look forward to seeing how the younger generation of youth with disabilities shake things even more in the future. Did I mention that I also work with an amazing team?” Tarryn adds.

While she has achieved so much, it hasn’t come easy. Tarryn has faced many challenges in pursuing her career. Her invaluable advice to those who would like to follow suit is to let go of constraining ideas or thoughts.

“My advice to all is to find the time to discover who you are – your intrinsic value as a person. Let go of all your perceived ideas of what is possible in this world for a woman with a disability. I’ll tell you now, everything is possible! However, you must know that success depends on the quality of your life’s mission,” she explains.

“For me getting into media was not because I wanted to be famous. It was because I wanted to change the perceptions many abled-bodied people have of persons with disabilities and I knew that media was the best way to do so. Find your purpose and your passion, work on improving yourself daily, mentally, physically and spiritually, and then use your voice or your craft to express yourself,” Tarryn says.

Her advice to her younger self: “I’d tell myself to stop being so hard on myself, that I can trust myself and that everything will be okay. I’d advise myself to let go of the past and toxic people quicker and to remember that I am beautiful, special, brilliant and valuable no matter what!”

Karen Smit

Passionate about diversity and inclusion, Karen’s life purpose is to influence businesses and organisations to embrace the inclusion of persons with disabilities. With over 23 years of experience in a large telecommunications company, Karen’s advocacy for the digital inclusion of people with disabilities and the elderly has established her as a global industry expert in accessible Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). She obtained her PhD in Disability Studies within the Health Science faculty at the University of Cape Town.

“My topic was about investigating how Mobile Network Operator’s processes promote or impede the digital inclusion of consumers with disabilities. Hence I developed a framework for ICT companies to promote the digital inclusion of people with visually impairments and other disabilities,” Karen explains.

Her motivation to pursue her PhD was in part because of her career. “My job entails driving the digital inclusion of consumers with disabilities by ensuring accessible products and services for South Africa’s largest telecommunication company,” she says.

“It is important for consumers with disabilities to become part of a connected society where they are able to not just connect, but use accessible technology and services. I myself as a disabled person and as a user of mobile technology experience on a daily basis the benefits of using accessible technology and services,” Karen adds.

While she was supported by her company, Karen was also motivated to further her studies because of her own passion for advocating the needs of people with disabilities.

She says: “As an industry expert in accessible ICTs, I am passionate about advocating and providing guidance to the industry to ensure that the needs of consumers with disabilities are kept in mind when designing products and technology.”

To achieve this, Karen is a member of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) Assistive Technology Advisory Group, which encourages mobile network operators to implement the principles of digital inclusion. She also served as the chairperson of the then Department of Communications’ ICT Forum sub- committee on accessibility. Prior to that, Karen was the deputy-chairperson of the regulators’ disability forum where she assisted to formulate the ICT Code for persons with disabilities

“Over the year’s mobile technology (hardware and software) has become increasingly more accessible for disabled consumers. Smart devices and using of various applications makes it possible for more disabled persons to access and use technology that meet their specific needs,” Karen notes.

She continues: “Furthermore, having access to the internet and accessible technology has become a human right. Without it, people with disabilities will not be able to participate in society.”

Tertiary studies, in general, are time consuming and require some sacrifices. However, PhD studies – often done part-time – are even more demanding. Karen dedicated five years to completing her PhD.

“Doing a PhD requires a lot of sacrifice in terms of spending most of one’s time writing one’s proposal, conducting research and writing up the thesis chapters. It took me five years to complete the whole journey. My family – we were in lockdown long before the COVID lockdown came,” she explains. Family vacations, holidays and celebrations were put on hold so that Karen can dedicate time to her studies.

“Although hard at times, I enjoyed the experience overall as I learned so much about the research process and about the topic I was investigating,” Karen says. “It was exciting to see how my research came together and I loved discovering gems that enriched my study. Doing a PhD is like climbing a mountain, it is tough, but pushing forward and never giving up made reaching the top and seeing the view worth the sacrifices.”

With her passion for life-long learning, Karen always encourages others to follow suit and further their studies. She notes: “I always encourage persons with disabilities to study in order to expand their skills and knowledge. I am a believer in lifelong learning and believe that one can always learn something new.

“Acquiring new skills and knowledge equips one to do your job better and to not become mediocre. Studying helps one to develop more insights about one’s interests or job which assists with developing and implementing innovative solutions. Having qualifications also gives one a better opportunity of being employed, being promoted in your job as well as giving one the edge when competing with peers,” Karen adds.

Most importantly, she believes that age shouldn’t be a factor that impacts on someone pursuing their studies.

“It’s also important to remember that one is never too old to study. I was 30 years old when I started studying for the very first time as barriers prevented me from studying directly after school. Today technology and access to the internet makes it so much easier to study as one can study an array of courses online from home at your own pace,” Karen says.

She confesses that there is nothing that she would have done differently in her life. “From a young age I inherently had the desire to live life to the fullest,” Karen explains. “It was natural for me to work hard and I am passionate about things I do.

“Growing older, I have learned to pace myself, to rest when I’m tired and to realise that I am my own competition – I don’t compare myself to anyone because I believe everyone has unique traits. I love life and find beautiful places and nature fascinating and inspiring,” she concludes.

Zara Talmarkes

In pursuit of improving her quality of life, Zara Talmarkes participated and graduated the QuadPara Association of South Africa (QASA) Work Readiness Programme.

“I received an e-mail from our friendly and helpful staff at the QuadPara Western Cape (QAWC) offices in Durbanville with the advertisement. I immediately felt interested after reading the requirements. At that time, I was unemployed and was seeking for opportunities to get a job as soon as possible,” Zara recalls.

“What motivated me to participate was that the programme was for persons with disabilities who are seeking employment and knowledge. So, I felt that this programme could improve my quality of life,” she adds.

The experience was invaluable for Zara – not only because she secured fulltime employment after completing the programme.

“The Work Readiness Programme experience was absolutely amazing. I do not regret doing it. My peers that I worked with were so kind and friendly. I was always excited to go back,” Zara says.

“Our facilitator Chadley Muller and former programme manager from Australia, Lowri Williams, made a person feel welcome and we could chat about anything that’s how awesome it was,” she recalls.

“After learning so much about modules and morals of the work environment, I felt so much more confident. I can now apply for any job without any fear in my heart. A month after I graduated from the programme, I received a phone call from, inviting me to an interview. The interview went well and I started working at in 2019,” she adds.

Zara is currently an online shopping assistant and loves what she does: “I enjoy my work so much. I enjoy working with people and helping them, resolving issues for them and knowing that the customer is happy and will come back.”

Her advice for other women with disabilities: “Just be yourself and be honest. Have confidence in yourself and your capabilities. Make decisions that will benefit you and not break you. Be friendly, and engage with others! Show interest in your work.”

She adds that “failure is an option, you get to choose”. She encourages others to continue working hard to achieve their goals.

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