Crusader for disabled does it the hard way

2010-03-30 00:00

IT will take more than having to hitch-hike hundreds of miles and spend nights at 24-hour petrol stations for Pieter van der Westhuizen to stop fighting for the disabled.

Van der Westhuizen lost both legs in a motorbike accident in 1986 that landed him in a wheelchair and led to the failure of his marriage about a year later. He once told the Star his legs were like cornflakes following the accident.

But it was not until he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2007 that his passion for the rights of the disabled was ignited.

“Doctors told me I wouldn’t make it to that December. I had already arranged for my funeral, but God helped me,” he says.

December came and went, but Van der Westhuizen pulled through. Then the urge to advocate for user-friendly facilities for the disabled in malls, hotels, restaurants, stadiums and other public spaces began to drive him.

Now the Nelspruit-based 60-year-old is a consultant to architects and engineers planning new buildings so that they can arrange the disabled-friendly facilities beforehand or assess the changes required, bringing facilities up to the standard for the disabled.

He has travelled across South Africa, giving motivational talks at churches, schools and businesses. However, since the unemployed Van der Westhuizen does not own a car, he relies on hitch-hiking to get to his destinations and sometimes has to spend nights at 24-hour petrol stations in pursuit of his dream — to make life easier for others.

“I’m not supported by anyone or any organisation …” he says, “I depend on people’s kindness and the man upstairs.”

The former chef arrived in Pietermaritzburg from Johannesburg last Tuesday night — hitch-hiking, of course — to assess how well it caters for the disabled. Rating it out of 10, he says, “I would give it eight. They are pretty good for a small town like this.”

Van der Westhuizen bottles up a lot of anger over the treatment dished out to disabled people.

He says the 2010 World Cup Local Organising Committee (LOC) refused to let him inside World Cup stadiums to inspect if facilities are in place for the disabled before kick-off day. “They told me they already have someone to do the inspection and that a report about it has been compiled.”

What frustrates him about the LOC is that the report has not been published yet, and he believes it never will be.

He also points out that “even if a disabled person is highly qualified, companies will never hire that person”. They don’t like the idea of having to change office surroundings so to suit the person’s condition at their expense, he says.

Van der Westhuizen says Johannesburg is the most wheelchair-unfriendly place he has been to.

Johannesburg should be the most wheelchair- friendly city in the country since it is the hub, he says. “Tourists find it hard in South Africa because most outlets are not user-friendly to the disabled …”

Van der Westhuizen has a blog on which he reviews the facilities of businesses that provide accessibility for the disabled.

He has called for them to visit if ever they need a review.

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