Paraplegic cycles for change


An accident that left Palesa “Deejay” Manaleng completely paralysed did not deter her from pursuing her dream of becoming a professional athlete, and now, she wants to erase all the misconceptions plaguing people who are differently abled.

Compiled By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Photos: Supplied

“Being a black disabled woman in this country, Yooh!” exclaims Deejay.

“Let me give a glimpse of how it happens in this country. It’s white men, white women, black men, black women, white disabled men, white disabled women, black disabled men and then black disabled women, do you see where I am in the system?

“Being a black woman in South Africa and also being a disabled black woman, people are continuously trying to hold you back from achieving anything. It’s a continuous dialogue that makes me want to vomit.”

In 2014, Deejay (eNCA journalist, student at University of Johannesburg and National Athlete) was left completely paralysed while cycling.

The brakes of her bicycle failed when she was cycling downhill, resulting in her hitting the pavement and then flying into a palisade wall.

She dislocated her spinal cord, broke two ribs, punctured a lung, fractured a shoulder and sustained a head injury.

After recovering, she continued her journey as a sportswoman and became successful in para-cycling.

She has been ranked 8th in the world for two years and has represented the country in two para-cycling world cups.

Along with her dream of representing South Africa at the World Championships and Olympics, she wants to help disabled people gain more accessibility and visibility so they can achieve their dreams.

Deejay is part of OCAL2018 Journey for change which raises funds for organisations that help differently abled people gain accessibility in various ways. She just completed a cycle marathon from Pretoria to Cape Town as part of the OCAL campaign to raise funds for a special needs school in the Northern Cape.

She urges people to make donations for the campaign on OCAL2018 JOURNEY FOR CHANGE.

Deejay chats to Blacklight about her struggles, achievements, dreams and being an advocate for differently abled people.

Blacklight: Did you ever imagine that your life would take such a turn and what made you learn to embrace it?
Deejay: No one can ever imagine that all of sudden they won’t be able to walk again. I had planned to one day compete as an athlete because I was cycling and running 10k races and I always dreamed of competing in the Olympic games. I thought running and cycling could take me there, but I never thought I would end up in a wheelchair.

Even when I just had my accident, lying on the ground there – conscious the whole entire time – I thought I was just numb and I would eventually get a tingling feeling and I would get up and go home.  

I didn’t know at that time that I was paralysed. I now realise that some things are a blessing in disguise because the experience forced me to be strong and to push beyond my limits.

I see the experience as a way to help other people through sports and to show them anything is possible.

We are conditioned to think that we are nothing without our legs, that’s what society teaches us and that is wrong.

Blacklight: What was the turning point which made you see the accident as a blessing rather than a curse?
Deejay:
 For a while I didn’t know I was paralysed. The doctors kept asking me after the surgery, “can you feel me wiggle your toes?” and I kept saying, ‘Yes I am wiggling my toes but I can’t feel you touching them’, when he was infact touching me. After a week of him trying, they eventually all came together (I was seeing a group of doctors and a professor) and they let me know that I was completely paralysed.

There is a difference, if you are incompletely paralysed there is a chance of you walking again and if you are completely paralysed then there is no chance.

I refused to believe the doctors and asked them to continue with the tests.

One day while I was still in hospital, I was drinking a bottle of water, because you are encouraged to drink lots of water, and my water bottle fell while there was no nurse in sight.

Instinctively I wanted to go down and pick up the bottle but I couldn’t move. I could just move my hands and my head. That is when it eventually hit me that I am actually paralysed.

I went through a period of darkness and I believed that it was the end of my life. We are conditioned to think that we are nothing without our legs, that’s what society teaches us and that is wrong.

I then began picking myself up slowly but this was after a friend of mine found me crying because of the water bottle incident. She climbed into bed with me and held me and I said to her, ‘will I ever walk again? Why am I the one going through this and what have I ever done to anyone to deserve this?’

She said: “you need to cry it all out because I can never cry your tears for you. Yes, you are alive but do you want to live?”

It didn’t make sense to me for a while until the nurses started me with physiotherapy, before they moved me to a rehab. I felt myself getting stronger and I started enjoying being able to do basic things like feeding myself, bathing and getting dressed.

I found out in rehab that I could still partake in sports and that was the moment for me.

Sport has always been my freedom and when I found that I could still play sports, everything started to make sense again. I no longer cared about the legs. Who needs them when I can still cycle, run, play basketball etc. with just my hands?

I saw a glimpse of my freedom and I decided to chase it.

My entire past, even before the accident, makes me who I am today. The accident didn’t make me, it just amplified me.

Blacklight: Now that you overcame that obstacle, what parts from that chapter minister to you on a daily basis?
Deejay:
There is no way I can take my journey in bits and pieces because it comes as a whole. Everything I have been through speaks to me every day.

When I am having a bad day, can’t get out of bed and everything seems to be falling apart or when I am having a great day and I am celebrating and winning, I look back at where I come from to where I am at that moment.

My entire past, even before the accident, makes me who I am today. The accident didn’t make me, it just amplified me.

Blacklight: When did you start cycling professionally?
Deejay:
I started cycling before the accident because I found that it gave me joy and a sense of freedom.

There is a saying in English that goes, “the only way to get over your fear of falling off a horse is to get back on it”, and that’s what I did.  

I found sponsors to help me pursue cycling and I focused on it.

I don’t know what I will be doing ten years from now but I know that I will always be partaking in some kind of sport.

Blacklight: What made you decide to use sports as a form of activism?
Deejay:
All I want is to compete as an athlete in the Olympics and represent my country, while doing that, I want to be a role model for differently abled kids, especially black kids.

Let’s be honest, as black people we don’t treat disability the way white people do. We still have kids who are locked up in back rooms, in townships.

We have kids who are told that their only way of life is to sit in the house and just collect grant at the end of the month.

We also don’t have access to education for differently abled kids in townships, we can’t afford wheelchairs and guide dogs – through my sports I want parents to see that even though their kids are differently abled they can still achieve anything because they can relate to me.

The aim is to create accessibility and by accessibility I mean beyond ramps.

I want accessibility in tertiary institutions and in jobs because this grant thing when the mind and hands can still work is utter rubbish.

I want them to be liberated and to be able to achieve whatever they set their minds to and they should have the equipment that can ensure they are able to do so.

Blacklight: Can you tell us more about your partnership with OCAL Global?
Deejay:
OCAL Global is an NGO that helps differently abled people gain accessibility in different ways. Every year they choose an organisation they are going to assist and they raise funds for it. This is the third year they are cycled from Cape Town to Pretoria and from Pretoria to Cape Town.

Last year, they raised funds for a school in Western Cape and they also do other initiatives, like the beach mats in Cape Town and Durban that allow people in wheelchairs to gain access to the beach.

They also helped create disability friendly playgrounds for differently abled kids which make them feel included.  

This year the organisation is raising funds for a school in Northern Cape for kids with special educational needs.

This will give me a greater platform to talk about the pressing issues that we face and our daily struggles. This is the initiative I will be focusing on this year because I don’t like to focus on too many things, otherwise they lose value.

Donations: OCAL2018 JOURNEY FOR CHANGE.
Instagram: @deejaymanaleng
Twitter: @deejaymanaleng

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