Lessons from my car accident

Friday, November 6, 2015

How Emilie used her trauma to benefit others

It has been almost 12 years since Emilie Olifant was involved in a traumatic car accident that changed her life forever.

People often ask her: :How are you feeling? How are you coping?”

The reality is – unless you have experienced the loss of your movement and the ripple effects car accident injuries can inflict - you cannot possibly understand the seriousness of the life-altering implications.

Being involved in a car accident and learning that you’ll be spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair is a traumatic experience, one most people find it difficult to accept. But as  Gabi Khumalo finds out, for 42-year-old Olifant, the incident turned to be a positive life changing experience.

With November being the National Disability Month, Oliphant shares her experience and how what happened to her motivated her to enrol in a Trauma Counselling course to help understand her trauma and help other people with disabilities cope.

“This was a life-changing experience. In fact I think my life wouldn’t have been as enlightening, exciting and more focused had it not been for the accident. What we learn in rehabilitation hospitals only kicks in when we get back to the real world. Applying the skills to one’s situation can be tough butt it’s all been an enlightening experience for me,” says Olifant, who sustained a spinal cord injury on the T12 vetebrae.

The youngest of six siblings and the only girl child, Olifant says she finds the support and company of her family keeps her sane.

She currently works as a special needs coordinator for Social Development Department. A qualified Trauma Counselor and an Advanced Project Management Graduate, Olifant is also the Founder and Director of the Emilie Olifant Foundation, which was launched in August 2013.

Based at Craigavon in Fourways, Gauteng, the foundation strives to address socio-economic issues experienced by people with disabilities through coaching, empowerment, mediation and integration of people with disabilities in the workplace.

“Our desire for our clients is to find meaning, improve their performance, strengthen their relationships and enhance their overall quality of life.”

She also chaired the Work and Employment Committee of the National Council for Persons with Physical Disabilities (NCPPDSA) and was also part of NCPPDSA’s Universal Access Committee.

Olifant has featured in several publications including the book titled “Look At Me”, compiled by Marlene le Roux. The book showcases the sensuality, strength and courage of 23 women with disabilities.

She also contributes articles for the Disability Magazine called Rolling Inspiration, a bi-monthly lifestyle publication targeting individuals, spouses, family, friends and colleagues of people with mobility impairments.

Before joining the Department of Social Development in 2014, Olifant worked as a Specialist Needs Co-ordinator with the then Department of Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities, now Department for Women. Since 2010, she volunteered her time regularly in projects that seek to address the disability agenda in line with the department’s national disability strategic plan.

Women with disabilities face more challenges

Olifant says women with disabilities experience more challenges in the workplace as they have to prove themselves a whole lot more compared to other women.

“In general, women struggle for equality in the workplace. That struggle doubles up when you have a disability. Most companies hesitate to employ people with disabilities because they think it's expensive to make changes to accommodate a new employee with disabilities. And once employed you have to work twice as hard to prove that you can work independently,” she says.

“When I was injured, I was admitted at Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital to learn how to adjust to my new life using a wheelchair. I’m happy to say I’m now independent and able to manoeuvre with little support.”

Unlike most people with disabilities, Olifant is lucky to work in a place, which is fairly accessible and enables her to do her work with very little support from colleagues.

Outside the office, the challenges differ depending on the places she needs to visit. Most of the time she has to work on corporate social investment projects and sometimes visits rural areas..

“I do what needs to be done and ask for assistance where needed. I can’t change the sometimes inaccessible environment we live in, so help is always welcome. What I find very annoying in general is that because I’m independent, people tend to look at how I deal with challenges from a personal point of view instead of understanding the impact of these challenges from an access point of view,” she says.

On the issue of discrimination and what can be done to address it, Olifant says it is a phenomenon that cannot be removed from someone’s frame of reference.

“What we can do is live by example – the change has to begin with me. So when we go to the hairdresser and she says to my companion: “How does she want her hair cut?”….. my response would  be: “It is my head, how about asking me and we can discuss it”.

“There is no need to be defensive or nasty to that person.  I am just different to them and I need to share that difference. How splendid it is when we reach a place of discernment rather than discrimination, and evaluation rather than judgment.”

Progress made in empowering people with disabilities

She acknowledges some of government’s efforts aimed at supporting and empowering people with disabilities. These include the National Disability Rights Awareness Month and National Day of Persons with Disabilities.

In 2013, Cabinet approved that 03 November to 03 December be observed as National Disability Rights Awareness Month and that 03 December be observed as the National Day of Persons with Disabilities.

“This provides the country with an opportunity to showcase and celebrate progress made in realising the political and socio-economic rights of persons with disabilities as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, including the rights to equality, dignity and self-reliance.

“Government is responsible for driving the equity, equality and empowerment agenda in terms of persons with disabilities,” says Olifant.

Despite her hectic work environment, Olifant tries by all means to maintain a balance between work and life.

“I travel when possible and spend quality time with close friends and family to relax. I also make time for some me time.” – SAnews.gov.za

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