In memory of Phillip Thompson

Memorialising 40 years of friendship

Rolling Inspiration
By Rolling Inspiration
5 Min Read

Memorialising 40 years of friendship 

Phillip Thompson passed away in May. His life and work touched the lives of many. He was a trailblazer for universal design in South Africa, a beloved husband, father and friend. Ari Seirlis memorialises Phillip and their several decades-long of friendship.

Dear Phillip, Thank you for 40 years of friendship … I met Phillip before his accident when I was selling a product to architects in the Durban area. He gladly bought my product and our friendship began.

He was friends not only with myself, but had a great relationship with my mum, Joan, who was also an architect specialising in universal design principles. They worked well together and the two of them paved the way for the introduction of accessibility.

Arguably more important, they introduced the concept of universal design as a solution for all people and not only for people with disabilities and mobility impairments.

Phillip and I served on many South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) committees. He chaired most of the meetings as his leadership was invaluable and he had the ability to articulate the position on behalf of people with disabilities.

The Gautrain and most of the Bus Rapid Transit programmes in South Africa had his signature input. All commuters can be grateful for that. His signature in terms of universal access is also prevalent in most of Airports Company South Africa (ACSA)’s airport terminals as well as the 10 stadia used in the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Through his leadership at the Federal Council on Disability, he also demonstrated his advocacy and lobby skills to ensure that legislation was applied for the benefit of people with disabilities.

He led the concept of universal design in the Institute of Architects in South Africa and ran many workshops, influencing our thinking to ensure we would not compromise for anything less. For that, we are very grateful.

Phillip was also an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and his services on the Presidential Working Group on Disabilities, advising several presidents (including former President Jacob Zuma and President Cyril Ramaphosa) was a huge influence.

The sad reality is that no one can replace the knowledge that he had and deployed in the disability sector to influence the public and private sector. He was one of the greatest and the disability sector will miss him dearly.

I enjoyed many an evening with Phillip over refreshments and good food. We had some memorable road trips together on our way to meetings.

We knew that, when the ignorant attending those meetings would see us arrive, they would silently mouth “OH F…” as they knew that there would be no compromise for the rights of people with disabilities with us in attendance.

Phillip and I worked in Sweden for a month. We were there on a learning excursion; however, it didn’t take long for them to learn far more from him than he did from them. Such was his knowledge and influence.

In saying goodbye to Phillip, I must say that life with a spinal cord injury is not easy. It is difficult, very difficult. Yet, he pursued, persisted and persuaded with resilience, not complaining about much at all.

Phillip Thomson, you have left a huge legacy that has made the lives of people with disabilities easier in South Africa and I’m sure even globally. Thank you for that. You will be remembered for a long time.

Thank you for your friendship, your sense of humour, your resilience and your bravery. Although for most of your life you could not walk, you certainly walked your talk.

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