Jo’burg woman defies disability

Thursday, November 30, 2017

By Gabi Khumalo

Sandra Khumalo was only 23-years-old when, together with a group of colleagues, she was involved in a car accident. Little did she know that this would change her life forever.  

At that moment, she did not have a clue that she would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life. Numerous tests later revealed that her lower body was paralysed due to spinal injury. The doctors who treated her were not confident that Khumalo would even survive, let alone be able to walk normally again.

However, through her strong determination to become self-sufficient and independent, Khumalo has proved to the world that living with a disability does not limit a person from achieving great things in life.

Having worked extra hard to reclaim her life, at 36-years-old now, she is not only a South African Second Paralympian Rower, but also a motivational speaker and a business woman.

As part of Disability Rights Awareness Month, SAnews recently sat down with Khumalo at her offices in Kempton Park, where she shared her story of faith and resilience.

Although it took some time to accept her condition, Khumalo was determined not to let the tragic event destroy her life.

She recalls that one of the first decisions she had to take after hospitalisation was joining the gym in order to get her life back on track, and keep herself physically and mentally fit.

She started swimming with a floating belt, which helped improve her blood circulation.  

At the gym, she was spotted by Midlands Rowing Club coach, Hillary Abrahams, who introduced her to rowing.  For some time, Khumalo had to travel from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, where the club was based, and she learnt the techniques of the sport.

She says that while in the water, she had a feeling of excitement and independence, and the “sport just changed everything, and I had something else to look forward to.”

In 2010, Khumalo moved to Johannesburg, where she met members of the RowSA team and later qualified as a National Arms and Shoulders Rower.

“The freedom of being out of my chair sitting in that boat for the very first time was exhilarating. It was an eye opener and from that time, I knew I could be still any one I want to be, despite my situation. I decided to turn all my odds into opportunities,” she says.

Her determination to make it in the sport saw her competing at the 2012 Summer Paralympics Regatta in London, where she was the only South African representative in the rowing division. She scooped a silver medal, which qualified her to participate in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

While she was enjoying her success in athletics, Khumalo’s wish of starting a business grew each day. She increasingly saw a need to start a business of supplying medical consumables needed by persons with disabilities on a day-to-day basis.

This was realised in 2014, when Khumalo partnered with a friend who was already in the business. The Thusanang Enabling Support Service (TESS) was born.

Today, the company supplies major medical equipment needed by people living with disability.

“We know from experience, as persons with disabilities ourselves, how difficult it is to access these consumables,” Khumalo says.

TESS is a service provider for the Road Accident Fund (RAF). They have contracts with drivers who transport  disabled people to their  doctor's visit and collect their medication at a pharmacy of their choice.

The company also arranges with their clients, who place orders for their medical supplies,  and make deliveries at their doorstep, even in the rural areas.

It further provides special care for patients who leave a hospital’s rehabilitation centre.

Khumalo says her dream is to travel around the country raising funds to buy wheelchairs for people who can’t afford them.

“Some of us are living a better life, and it’s on us to recognise other people with disability who are suffering and can’t pay for the devices they need. We need to go in deep rural areas, and I intend to travel as far as the continent, in order to realise this,” Khumalo says.

Her experience has made her realise the challenges faced by people living with disability, who are sometimes unable to even afford private transport to take them to health facilities.

It is for this reason that the company supplies three-month medical packs to people living with disability in order to ease the burden of moving around looking for the equipment, which is often out of stock.

Although she acknowledges some of the improvements made towards addressing issues affecting disabled people, particularly in the workplace, Khumalo feels that more needs to be done to raise awareness about the challenges facing people who live with disability.

“There’s a slight change, but companies need to wipe out the mentality that if they hire a disabled person, they only give them switchboard work. If I’m a motivational speaker, use me like you would use other motivational speakers, not only in events for disabled people,” she says.

Khumalo’s dream is to travel around the country, raising funds to buy wheelchairs and assistive devices to be distributed to disabled people.

“Some of us [disabled people] are living a better life, and it’s on us to recognise other people with disabilities, who are suffering and can’t afford to buy the devices they need. We need to go in deep rural areas, and I intend to travel as far as the continent, in order to realise this,” Khumalo says.

Although Khumalo’ s relationship with her husband took a knock after her accident, she is thankful for her two daughters, aged 17 and six, as well as the things she has managed to achieve despite her disability.

Disability Rights Awareness Month takes place annually from 3 November to 3 December to promote the human and socio-economic rights of people with disability by making information available and accessible.

This year’s campaign was observed under the theme “Strengthening Self-Representation: Young people building on the legacy of OR Tambo towards a sustainable and resilient society for all.” – SAnews.gov.za

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