Seirlis: ‘The disability sector is looking for a voice’

2009-03-12 00:00

Ari Seirlis, the outspoken national director of the QuadPara Association of South Africa (Qasa), has resigned his position to stand as a candidate for the Independent Democrats in the national elections.

A quadriplegic as a result of a diving accident, Seirlis has been an active lobbyist and advocate in the national disability sector.

He is also an experienced motivational speaker and was a finalist in the Durban Chamber of Commerce’s Businessman of the Year Award. He has been placed number three on the ID’s national list.

Tell us about yourself

I was born in Cyprus while my parents were on a working assignment there. They came back to South Africa when I was two. I went to school at Highbury and then Hilton College.

I studied towards a bachelor of commerce degree for two years at the University of Cape Town and then served my two years’ national service as a lieutenant with the bushmen trackers. After the army I completed a marketing diploma (IMM) at Natal Technikon.

I broke my neck in a diving accident at Durban’s Waterworld in 1985. After rehabilitation, I ran my own sign manufacturing business for 15 years, which was very successful.

During this time I joined the quadriplegic association, worked my way through the ranks and was chairperson of the association for five years. Last week, I stood down as the national director.

Did you ever imagine yourself standing for a seat in the National Assembly?

It was not part of my career to aim towards getting into Parliament. I didn’t study political science at university, although I am very interested in politics. However, I am absolutely committed to the cause and issues of disability. I enjoy getting things right and planning prevention strategies.

I feel that there is very little implementation on the ground of the very good legislation we have. It is with this frustration, together with the fact that although the ANC have had 20 members of parliament with disabilities, it seems that was ineffective in the implementation of the legislation they were part of designing.

The disability sector is looking for a voice. The disability sector is looking for some action.

When did you become an ID member and why?

I have not been a member of any party until recently, when I decided that the ID was probably the best platform. Disability needs a political party that has a strong leader, and somebody who can expose some of the injustices. Patricia de Lille is courageous and brave and will honour her commitment to the disability sector. No other opposition political party has a candidate with a disability on the candidate list.

Was it a difficult decision to enter politics?

Yes, it has been a very tough decision as I have built the QuadPara Association of South Africa into a formidable NGO, which is now sustainable and a leading disability agency.

Are disabled people given a fair deal in South Africa?

Absolutely not. Most people with disabilities are unemployed. All people with mobility impairments have no access to public transport. The general public do not understand disability, and this comes from the separate schooling system. The social grant (disability grant) is a pittance and the promised services to support people with disabilities are non-existent.

How will you try to improve things for people with disabilities?

I will consult extensively with the disability sector and prioritise the real issues affecting people.

I will take the United Nations charter on the rights of persons with disabilities and see how it is being implemented through legislation, understand the present impact and perhaps try to use the equality court to create some immediate change. It’s probably going to have to take a high-level case against a particular government department for them to realise how far behind they are in the implementation of the rights they created.

What other issues in South Africa do you feel strongly about?

Unemployment, poverty alleviation and HIV and Aids are some things which I will also take an interest in. Furthermore, I will be looking at supporting the needs of our aged. I am interested in vulnerable groups and minority groups

What do you think your greatest assets are as an individual?

I am a workaholic, I am loyal, I have integrity, I have respect, I listen well, I plan well, I have an excellent track record, I take advice, I speak well, I follow up and I report back.

You are clearly a gifted businessman. Do you see this standing you in good stead in your new challenges?

Without a doubt, having a business background will assist me. I have a particular passion for entrepreneurship and I have a particular interest in getting people with disabilities into BBBEE opportunities.

Will a political career mean an end to your inspirational talks?

Well, I hope not. I see the change it makes in people’s lives, especially those of people with disabilities, when I have an opportunity to engage with them. I will honestly ask what the protocol is regarding continuing to do these talks.

I will never walk away from my constituency of people with disabilities.

•Q&A compiled by Sue Segar and Sharon Dell.

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