Theo Manuel Story

'Life is worth living!'

Following my spinal injury (C4-5) on a Friday afternoon, 2 February 1979, I spent the next year in Conradie Hospital in Cape Town. I was 12 years old at the time. At the time of my injury, doctors agreed that I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair and that my family should ensure that everything around me should be made disability friendly. After having been a very active young lad who excelled at all sports prior to my injury, I probably, like many other disabled persons lived with the hope that after the first year of my injury “ I would walk and be “normal again via a miracle”. However, as life continued from 14 to 18 years old, I realised that life as I knew it would never be the same again. I was disabled and needed to live my life! While I think every disabled person can write a book about their journey, I would like to relay key areas and moments in my life which I think makes life worth living.

Looking back, I think there were two important components that contributed to what I consider a successful and happy life thus far; firstly, the love and caring of those around you, and secondly your own commitment to strive for a quality life. When looking at love and caring, I consider my family and a few significant others to have played the greatest role in contributing to my success. You live with your family every day, they were the one’s (and I mean every person in my family) had a chance to help me get up, get dressed, take me for a walk, help me when I needed to go to the toilet. My close friends who I met after the injury became the friends who I still have today.

One particular friend who I would particularly mention is called Clifford. In the first year after the injury in 1980, I re-entered school in a wheelchair, starting in Grade 8. We were in the same class. Clifford fetched me every day in my wheelchair, took me to school and brought me home in the afternoon. We also shared the same love for table tennis, which we played many a day after school. I also went along with him many a times to swim at the local swimming pool. Through this kind of friendship, I was able to integrate back into ordinary life doing ordinary things. I have learnt that disabled people need to integrate back into “normal” society. “Do not expect society to become disabled”. As my injury was not “complete”, I still had sensation and very limited mobility in both my arms and legs. Swimming lessons helped a lot. In Grade 11, I started walking with the aid of crutches, which I use to this day.

Even on the level of relationships with the opposite gender, I must say looking back that being disabled does not mean you are immune to falling in love or experiencing disappointments. I, like any other young man, dated many girls. One hint I must give is that being mobile with a car contributes largely to whether you can practically participate in having a relationship. Another hint is that relationships are not about finding out if you can have sex, or if you can have many girlfriends at the same time, but rather if your one partner can trust you and that you are able to display commitment and loyalty to your partner. I have learnt that a fulfilling relationship is not about being able to supply your partner with money to retain their loyalty, but rather to establish a basis of respect, caring and honesty from the start and throughout your relationship. Never compromise on respect, honesty, and trust. What I must report is that these qualities have resulted in me having found my soul mate, life partner and soon to be wife who I think is the most beautiful woman on earth and who loves me completely, despite my disability.

In striving for a quality life, decisions made by a disabled person are no different to any other person. It is my theory, that you should choose an area in life wherein you excel, and ensure this contributes to improving the quality of your life. It could be via getting a good education or even excelling at sport. I grew up very poor and always believed that by getting a good education, it would result in a good job, a good income and a better quality of life. I attended an ordinary school and finished matric in 1984. I achieved good grades and continued tertiary education at the University of Cape Town (UCT) finishing a BSc, BSc (Hons) and a Teacher’s Diploma by 1991. Having my own car to go to UCT made a crucial difference in getting there every day. From 1992 onwards I worked as a Biology, Maths and Science teacher at a secondary school, followed by a contractual job as an educational consultant. This job allowed me to travel throughout South Africa. I even travelled internationally to the USA and Korea. My greatest educational achievement was when I recently graduated with a PhD doctorate from UCT on 15 June 2006. After nearly ten years doing research on how people can benefit from conservation, my dream of becoming a ”doctor” came true. What was remarkable was that in all the time that I did this research, I also had to work to support myself. Currently I really enjoy working as a Catchment Manager for a programme whose goals such as poverty alleviation and environmental improvement I believe in. It is called the Working for Water Programme. I continue to live a very normal life with my life partner, I enjoy going to the gym, swimming, and quad bike riding. I believe that, irrespective of a disability, life is worth living.

*Picture of Theo Manuel on quad bike

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