The word “tireless” comes to mind when you meet the indefatigable CEO of QASA, Ari Seirlis. DEBORAH LOUW reports
Already a busy man with a full and varied workload, in 1985 sports-loving Ari Seirlis, then 23, had just completed the Comrades Marathon and was enjoying one of his favourite pastimes – swimming, while modelling for a TV commercial. His life was forever changed that day, however: he broke his neck in a dive and was left a quadriplegic.
But, if anything, his new circumstances made him redouble his efforts and commitments. The list of organisations to which he belongs, of causes he embraces and of awards he’s been given attest to vigorous stamina and a wide range of interests. Just some of these: he was a finalist in the Durban Businessman of the Year awards; he’s been Secretary of the Sign Association, manager of the Hillcrest Villagers Rugby club 2nd team, he was a management member of the Phoenix Spinal Rehab Centre; he’s on the board of the South African Sexual Health Association and Chairman of Amasondo Rugby Suite, and sits on the board of the Health & Welfare SETA. Before joining QASA, he owned Markplan Designs, which specialised in signage; and he founded a bank that financed mobility aids and other assistive devices. This was all part of the learning curve that provided him with the business acumen, which he applies to the running of QASA today.
He has just recently been selected to serve on the Presidential Working Group on Disability.
We were curious to find out a little more about the man who’s been at the helm of QASA since 2001. Here, he shares some of his thoughts with us.
What are a few of your career highlights to date?
The opportunity to bring in some significant projects into the QASA stable, which have not only had a good outcome, but have made an impact through life-changing developments for quadriplegics and paraplegics. Rolling Inspiration is one of those products; there’s also a driver training programme, and computer centres that provide entry-level computer training. One that stands out for me was our innovative programme branded FREE OUR INNOCENT: we created partnerships between the Department of Correctional Services, the corporate sector and the community to make the homes of some wheelchair users in an informal settlement accessible. We did so by using offenders from the Westville prison, material donated by a large contractor and our relationship-building skills to create this environmental change and provide an accessible environment for a few. The outcome of this project was that the community embraced their neighbour, the Westville prison! This project should be reproduced and replicated. There’s also QUADS 4 QUADS and an incredibly successful 12 year-old fundraising event of QASA’s, which has provided unrestricted funding, and enticed me to ride an off-road adapted motorbike from Johannesburg to Durban – which I have now done 11 times.
What have been your most satisfying moments?
When I see or hear that one of our members who has been through our programmes has secured meaningful employment; knowing that after this, they will be less dependent on QASA, our projects and services.
And the most challenging?
The most challenging activity in my career was taking on SANRAL’s ETOLL programme. I knew it was going to be politically unpopular and a very stressful period, and it still is, but the outcome, in favour of people with disabilities through this unjust tax imposed upon us, will have global impact on marginalised groups, especially people with disabilities.
How would you describe yourself in a few words?
Passionate, stern, focused, ambitious, principled, fair, courageous.
Do you have a personal hero? Or someone who has been a mentor and inspiration?
In my time as a wheelchair user, I had the opportunity to spend some time with (film star) Christopher Reeve on numerous occasions, and the impact he had upon me was that he was prepared to open his life to the world – that openness helped to “popularise” quadriplegia. If quadriplegia needed a hero, we needed a Superman, and we got Superman. My father was always my hero, but unfortunately he passed away three years after my accident in 1989.
If you had a “gratitude list”, what would be at the top?
My sister and my mother equally for bravery, patience, compassion, resilience and understanding. I’m also grateful for a good education. And for my caregivers, who form part of my independence and wellbeing.
What’s still on your To-do List?
To fall in love, visit Cyprus again, go back to San Francisco.
What’s your favourite way to relax?
Hand-cycle a longroad, a long stroll on the beachfront, and flyfishing in the mountains.