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People with Disabilities

SANParks embraces disability: 1 to 4 December 2003

By Christopher Patton

Wednesday the 3rd of December was the United Nations International Day for People with Disabilities (PWD). Earlier in the year the Dept of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), through their capacity building wing conceptualized the running of a national art competition on the theme “My Environment, my Life” for learners with disabilities to coincide with the day. They collaborated with their sister departments (health and education) and also made contact with prominent disability organisations, including Eco-Access. Eco-Access alerted DEAT to the fact that SANParks had won the 2003 Filmer Award for contribution to creating an accessible natural environment accessible to everyone, and so SANParks was brought into the fold, along with other sponsor organisations. Rather than have a celebration in Gauteng, it was proposed to give the children the opportunity of a trip to Kruger National Park, where they could receive a wonderful environmental experience in addition to the envisaged prizes. Skukuza was selected as a venue with the infrastructure and staff to offer a diverse group of people with all natures of disability a memorable experience.

Of the 26 children who participated, their disabilities included partial and complete blindness, deafness, severe learning disability, intellectual challenge and physical disabilities. The children traveled down with educators from their schools, who ensured their well being, but also helped to inform the staff on how to interact with people with disabilities. The art competition used to select children was a national one, but the winning finalists were from 5 of the countries provinces (Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal, Gauteng, North-West and Limpopo). They all arrived on the 1st (compliments of Imperial Car Rental) and had a brief welcoming and dinner at Selati Train Restaurant.  

A Game Drive with a Difference

The first organised activity was a game drive at 5am on the 2nd. The Skukuza Guides, Van Rooyen, Joseph, Aubrey and Pilot soon realized that there audience was a little different and things had to be communicated to certain participants in sign language or for the visually challenged with great care and description. They rose to the occasion superbly and would stop for animals or plants that the blind and others could hear, smell and even feel. When the vehicles returned, the participants were abuzz. Michael Baloi, blind from birth was enthusing about the Piet-my-vrou he had heard and the tortoise he had held.

Environmental Education

After breakfast, the participants gathered in the Auditorium where they were welcomed by Heidi Hansen and Kenneth Mabila and their colleagues. They were then taken on a tour of some of the camps historic sites. It took much longer than allocated for the tour before they all assembled in the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Library. A reason for this was that everything had to be translated into universal sign-language and sign-language English (2 different languages) and thus things took 3 times as long. This was an amazing insight for the Kruger staff hosting such an event - something that with our inexperience we had not considered.

Some of the planned events had to be cancelled because of the lack of time, but one activity that wasn’t was a visit to the holding bomas, where disease free buffalo and 2 habituated white rhino (themselves both ‘disabled’) could be encountered up close. Shari Cade gave the children wonderful insight into the processes behind keeping animals in bomas, but the real highlight was when everyone could pat the two rhino. For the blind and the intellectually challenged in particular this was an awesome experience to enable them to visualize the size and strength of the animal. A blind girl – Jabu – was indignant but amused when the rhino swatted her with its tail. The smells of the boma also had a resonant impact on the unsighted participants. After lunch and freshening up, and then some environmentally orientated games, the party moved off to Mathekanyane Kopje to watch the sun go down.

Here they were joined by a wise old man (born in the area in 1935) who told everyone in Shangaan about the history of the area and some folk stories, while Kenneth Mabila acted as his foil and translated things into English. A rewarding and inspirational day was then rounded off with a bush braai.

The Diversity Challenge

A diversity challenge is a unique activity pioneered by Eco-Access. It takes influential able-bodied adults and pairs them off with children with disabilities. All the participants then undertake a series of environmentally orientated exercises. The able-bodied participants are also required to experience simulated disability such as sitting in wheelchairs, being blind-folded or wearing industrial earmuffs. Hosting such a challenge in Kruger gave the staff the opportunity to be exposed to such an enlightening and humbling insight into the world of those less fortunate than most of us. Participating staff included hospitality staff from all the regions (mainly from the southern region) and several people from people and conservation.

There were also representatives from Nature’s Group and the Honorary Rangers. To start off with they were given an inspirational briefing from educators with experience in interacting with PWDs. The message was clear: PWD are human and they need to be loved and not feared or avoided. Don’t be scared to communicate with them or to make mistakes in reaching out to them. Let them guide you in what is best for them. The staff were then blind folded and put in wheelchairs and made their way down to where the children were participating in art exercises facilitated by the National Council for PWD.

The 3 exercises that the participants were then exposed to focused on: using ones senses of smell and taste with details given in Braille; using ones sense of touch – details given in sign language and using ones senses of sight and hearing – an exercise focusing on birds’ calls and colours. Time constraints meant that the intended script had to be abandoned a little, but the message was still conveyed and the result was one of breaking down barriers, creating awareness and celebrating adversity.  

The Ceremony

The prize giving and celebratory ceremony were held in the Skukuza auditorium. Rather more than the 160 capacity were packed into the hall where the participants and Kruger staff were joined by community representatives, government officials and children from a school for people with disabilities in Komatipoort. It was in the mid 30s outside, so it was rather stuffy in the auditorium, but everyone took part in the spirit of things, particularly learning to sing various songs (including the national anthem) complete with sign language
Key note speaker was Mrs Pam Yako, DEAT’s chief operations director, while Maria Mbengashe the chief director for biodiversity and heritage also delivered an address. Three of the children (one blind, one deaf and one in a wheelchair) delivered poignant messages describing what the activity had meant to them.

Many in the audience were in tears at their courage, but most of all because of their love for life. The climax of the ceremony saw the awarding of prizes for the artwork and craftwork to both the individuals and the schools they represent. Every single child got a certificate and a gift voucher, while the winners received personal computers. Prizes were courtesy of Office-Focus and Data-World.  Birdlife SA gave special prizes to the top bird entries. The top 12 entries have been put into a wonderful limited edition calendar for 2004. DEAT can be immensely pleased and proud of this and the entire event that their concept initiated.  

What the Staff Said:

Below are some selected comments from Kruger’s Staff who interacted with the children:

Sarah Sefanyetso, Hospitality Manager, Skukuza Rest Camp:

I must say, it was a privilege to be associated with those kids. I never thought that I would be so comfortable around them. I must confess that, when you mentioned this events in the Tourism Forum last month I was not too sure how am I going to handle the situation. I have learnt a lot from the workshop and I will never treat people with disabilities differently from any other people. Seating on that wheelchair, blind folded it was a very hard thing to do. I must say I respect those kids, taking into account their conditions and be able to do things that normal people can do. This event was an eye opener for us and I am glad that was successful.

I think the time is over due for SANParks to renovate their facilities to accommodate disabilities. We shouldn't just focus on wheelchair; we should cover all the criteria. We must look at our accommodation, activity vehicles, our policies and procedures and we must train our staff sign languages to be able to interpret. I think the SANParks Senior Management need to attend the workshop and do the exercise as well in order for them to speed the progress.

Thank you for letting me be a part of it, it is an experience I will carry with me throughout this life and to which I dedicate this poem.

Sam Priya Mudramuthoo, Duty Manager, Shingwedzi Rest Camp:

One Day

I walked in a world filled with color –
I heard the melodies of a thousand birds –
I ran barefooted on beach sand
And captured it all on paper.

I read a novel of poignancy and beauty –
Marveled at the skilled artist.
I sang my favorite song out loud
And danced in the rain.

For a day, I lived in a world of darkness
For a day, I heard no sound
For a day, I spoke no word
For a day, I did not move

In just one day I realized
That everything I have, is so much more
Than my wildest dreams could encompass
Nor imagine.

For, in just one day, I lived the life
Of brothers and sisters I rarely considered.
And, in just one day, I respect like never before –
I appreciate like never before –
I understand like never before…  

All in just one day…

Hein Grobler, Hospitality Services Manager, Olifants Rest Camp:

Dear Chris,
Thanks for the invitation. As discussed with you, it was excellent.  It was really an unforgettable experience for me, and I would like to see that much more of our staff gets involved in this, including guides, receptionists and hut attendants.

Thulile Skosana, MICE Coordinator, Skukuza Rest Camp:

The event in my opinion was very successful and a big eye opener. It gave us an opportunity to be able to interact and an experience of a day in the life of a person with a disability. Moreover it belittled us on how inconsiderate or unaccommodating we are and have been towards some of our guests who have other forms of disabilities other than just physical disability. We were also enlightened and made aware of the different forms of disability that our society faces which in my opinion has posed a serious challenge to our organisation in terms of working, servicing and fulfilling the needs of disabled persons.

I would further also like to recommend, if I may, that we undergo a basic training course on sign language and living with disabled persons in order to best try and offer service excellence to our guests. The lady from the Hammanskraal School for the Deaf said she could be available only during school holidays. Ag, just a suggestion!

William Mabasa, Kruger Public Relations Manager:

I must say that I enjoyed the short moment that I spent with the group, it was quite an experience for me to learn how to sing in sign language amongst other things I must say and I hope you people had a good time.

Heidi Hansen, Environmental Education Officer, Skukuza Rest Camp:

Chris, I would like to thank you for such an amazing opportunity last week. It really was a life changing experience THANK YOU! During last week I realised just how much of life I take for granted, how much I just casually expect to have each day and never have any gratitude towards. Just to be able to see what's around me, hear the birds and people talking, to be able to get to a place without having worry about how I am going to get there - these are only a very few of the things I have realised I have taken for granted! The group also showed me what acceptance, patience and trust really are!! It was truly a humbling experience to have participated in the event! Thank you so much and thanks to all those incredible kids!!

The only true concern I have though, is that top management needed to have participated in this event. The people who are decision makers need to spend some time with people with disabilities, they need to be put into wheelchairs, blindfolded and "made deaf" to fully comprehend the challenges people with disabilities encounter and how we can make KNP or SANParks so much more accessible to them. Small things such as a dip before a hut with a ramp for wheelchairs - doesn't quite make sense, flickering lights when someone knocks at a door for the deaf, Braille for the blind to read etc etc. I would like to make a plea to management that the next time a group like this visits a park PLEASE go take part - its the most awesome experience and it will truly make you more aware of what is needed for accessibility of our parks. Accessibility is NOT only for wheelchairs - it for every other form of disability!

Garth and Elizabeth Holt, Hospitality Services Manager:

The time with the children was amazing and a real eye opener. From Garth's perspective it made him more aware of how far behind the Park is with making its facilities friendly for people with disabilities. It will be a real challenge to get the camps ready to receive these folk. He found the experience of being blindfolded quite something and has given him a great deal of respect for the people who have no chance of ever having "the blindfold removed"!!!

Occupational Nurse, Lower Sabie Rest Camp:

From my point of view as a nurse, having dealt with people like the children for 28 years, it re-enforced the fact that "normal" people HAVE to learn to integrate challenged people into our "normal" society. Maybe we, as occupational health nurses in the Park, can include this into our education programme. It would certainly be a challenge to get the staff totally aware of these problems and comfortable enough to be know what to do so as to be able to help.

Thank you

Much praise and thanks must go to the following for all their help and efforts in organising and running the event: Thulile Skosana, Mavis Matukane, Sarah Sefanyetso and all the other Skukuza Tourism staff and activity guides, the people and conservation team especially Kenneth, Heidi, Shari, Eddie, Solly, and Theo, Garth and Elizabeth Holt, all the Kruger staff who came from near or far to participate in the Diversity Challenge, Naomi Brandt and the staff of Nature’s Group and in their absences but through organisation, Helen Mmethi, Sister Gilly Thompson, Raymond Travers and any other people who gave so much and whose names I may inadvertently have omitted.

Externally, much gratitude must go to the staff from DEAT, particularly Tiisetso Ramotse and Dr Jenitha Badul for their tireless efforts. Much praise must also go to Lynnette, Tania and George from Eco-Access and Malcolm from Birdlife South Africa, without whose expertise and experience in interacting with children with disabilities, things would never have run with the semblance of smoothness. Thanks to must go to all the sponsors and support bodies who contributed to the event. But the biggest thanks of all must go to the teachers and children who simply through their brave participation and indomitable spirits taught us all so much.