Overcoming disability in the workplace

Thursday, November 21, 2013

By Samona Murugan

After surviving a car accident which left him with a broken vertebrae column Maniki Bambalala picked up the pieces and went back to work.  Fourteen years later Bambalala, has defied his disability to continue working as a Supply Chain Management (SCM) clerk at Government Communication and Information System (GCIS).

Bambalala’s fortunes changed when he lost all mobility in his arms and legs in a car accident in 1999.  Employed at GCIS at the time, he recalls saying goodbye to colleagues the day before, not realising his life was about to undergo a drastic change. He was told that he would never be able to walk or use his hands again.

“For me the hardest thing was accepting my situation, and being reliant on others, because I was so used to fending for myself.”

A caring employer 

After the accident, the GCIS purchased two customised wheelchairs for him, one for home and the other for office use, and provided transport to transfer Bambalala to and from work daily.  As part of the department’s Reasonable Accommodation Plan, under the Human Resources Directorate (HRD), Bambalala’s sister, Caroline Phahlane, was also hired as a caregiver. She assists with his travel, work duties, meals, bathroom breaks and ensures that he is taken care of at all times.

He, together with other employees with disabilities at GCIS, undergo weekly sessions with an in-house physiotherapist. Through extensive physiotherapy, Bambalala now uses his right arm, with the help of a hand splint to type. This enables him to steer his wheelchair and carry out his work duties. “I had to change my way of life completely from the way I exercised my muscles to what I ate. I have to maintain a strict diet as I cannot gain too much weight or I would not be able to support myself or sit upright,” he says.

Previously getting a taxi to work would take almost two hours, as drivers would pass him by simply because it would take too much time for him to get into the taxi. Bambalala now receives a travel allowance from GCIS which he uses for fuel to get to and from work every day.

Going to the bathroom at work or even going to buy groceries at a shopping centre was and still remains a mission, because people use the parking and toilet facilities that are meant for people with disabilities and not for them.  “People think that they can use the disabled parking bays or the disability bathroom because they won’t be long, but in reality they do not understand the severe implications of their actions. One might find oneself in upsets just waiting to use the toilet, it is not a nice feeling as a man,” he says.

Maniki is grateful to his department for the assistance throughout the years, and often wonders how other people with disabilities who are unemployed manage. According to HRD Director at GCIS, Mavis Tshokolo, the department has customised its disability assistance programme to meet the needs of its various employees.  The Directorate, along with the physiotherapist, also hold regular sessions with the various managers who oversee employees with disabilities to discuss further challenges and improvements facing the employee and their respective team.

Bambalala recently also received a new customised workspace desk. This new desk allows him to perform his duties with optimal ease. “The normal desks used to hurt and bruise my knees as I could not fit under my table, now I am able to do my work without discomfort.”

A day in Bambala’s life

Bambalala’s day begins at 4am and ends at 12am each day. “Everything I do takes much longer than the average abled bodied person, from getting ready in the morning to getting to work on time.” His day is filled with ensuring that he gets to work on time, compiling his duties at work, getting home, being a father to his four children, and also making time to study towards Psychology and Counselling through the University of South Africa. 

What prompted him to further his studies was a realisation that his disability could limit his career growth. “Working in SCM, I could never progress to a management level, as things like carrying out physical stock takes are part of the job description, which I cannot do.”  Bambalala says he feels that this affects many people with disabilities across the Public Sector. “Yes, government has a mandate to ensure that at least 2% of people with disabilities are employed, but at what level?” asks Bambalala rhetorically.  He soon realised that he would have to use what he could, like his mind and his voice, to pursue psychology and counselling in the future. Going to the libraries to conduct research and study was a mission. But GCIS once again stepped in to assist and purchased a laptop for him to ease his studies.

Hope for a better tomorrow

Despite his endless challenges, his endearing smile and light heartedness have brought on a new outlook on life. “You cannot change what you don’t accept or acknowledge,” says Bambalala. Staying positive and making the best of every day has kept him sane, but he says the worst part of being disabled is not the disability itself, as he has learnt to cope with that, but the attitude of others. “Society has not learnt how to treat people like me and we are sometimes treated as if we are invisible.”

When using an elevator, people tend to rush and close the doors quickly when they see him approaching, and he is often told to let the ‘normal’ people use the elevator first as they are in a hurry. “This makes me question, am I not a normal human being too,” asks Bambalala.

People’s attitudes and the way they treat and behave towards people with disabilities is the biggest disability of all, says Bambalala. “We as public servants need to lead the way and show South Africans how to be compassionate and understanding, without taking pity and dehumanising someone with a disability.”

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