She leads a busy life, running her own radio talk show, teaching German and helping to organise a community association for people living with disabilities.
And in her spare time you’ll find her shopping up a storm at her local mall – and she does everything with a broad smile and the energy of at least two people.
Monica Gerhard (56) from Upington in the Northern Cape has never allowed the fact she was born without arms and legs to get her down. And her zest for life and keen sense of humour shine through every thing she does. “Careful – the dog doesn’t bite but I might,” she says with a grin when she greets us at the front door alongside her boisterous dachshund, Leila.
She leads us into the cosy home she shares with her elder sister, Inge Gerhard. “My disability has never held me back,” Monica says. “I had a normal childhood and played with my brother and sister. Sometimes I’d bully them with my stump.” There’s no medical explanation for why she was has no limbs.
When she was born in Tsumeb, Namibia, it was suspected it might be a result of the controversial medication thalidomide. Back then, the drug was prescribed to alleviate morning sickness in pregnant women – but the side-effects were often devastating.
In Germany alone, where the medication was first marketed, about 7 000 babies were born with misshapen or missing arms and legs. But Monica says her mother, who died several years ago, never took this medication.“My mom said I should always tell people that she didn’t take any drugs when she was expecting me,” Monica says. But whatever the cause, Monica was born with an unbreakable spirit.
Nothing gets her down – not even the fact she’ll never walk and can’t hold a pen or drive a car. “Not having limbs has never bothered me,” she says. “I’ve never known any other way. I live my life differently and it suits me perfectly. “Besides, my feet never ache and I never have to do the dishes.”
Monica attended daycare as a young child and has fond memories of that time. There she was just a toddler, like all her little friends. “I played in the sandpit and I loved the swings – the carer always had to swing me the highest of all the kids.”
She attended a regular school in Namibia until Grade 8 but because Namibian high schools weren’t wheelchair friendly at the time she was sent to Elizabeth Conradie School for children with special needs in Kimberley in the Northern Cape, where she boarded.
University was out of the question as most campuses weren’t wheelchair friendly so Monica returned to Tsumeb, where she worked as a medicalaid consultant at a mine.
When she was in her twenties the family moved to Upington, where Monica struggled to find work. That’s when she decided to start a branch of the Association for Persons with Physical Disabilities. “There was a great need in Upington,” she says. She and other community workers laboured tirelessly to establish a support network for the disabled in the area, including helping them apply for social grants.
Monica is still involved with the association, focusing on raising awareness for people with disabilities. She was also an active member of the government’s National Council for Persons with Dis abilities and was the council’s representative in the Northern Cape until four years ago.
“It opened doors for me. I met many people,” she says. Monica has always loved radio and a few years ago fulfilled her dream of working in broadcasting. She has a weekly programme on an Upington community radio station and devotes it to topics related to disability. She’s open about her condition and never shies away when people ask her about it.
“When kids ask I tell them Jesus decided not to give me arms and legs but He gave them to you and you mustn’t take them for granted. When adults want to know what happened I do what my mother wanted me to do: I tell them it wasn’t her fault. “Then I list everything I can do. I can get around in my electric wheelchair, I can type, I can use my cellphone. I can take care of myself.”
When Monica’s phone rings she answers using earphones and a microphone around her neck. “The phone is connected to a speaker with headsets via Bluetooth – my phone rings three times, then it answers automatically and I can speak to the caller.”
She uses WhatsApp too – she can’t hold a phone but she has someone else hold it in front of her, or she puts it on a table nearby. Then she wedges a long, specially designed stick with a stylus between her chin and shoulder, and types quickly and accurately. A computer sits on a low table in her home office.
She slides from her wheelchair and crawls over to the machine on her stumps, then types a few paragraphs using a drumstick in her mouth. This is where she prepares for her radio show and online German lessons – Monica is fluent in German as both her parents were firstlanguage speakers.
She’s also a selfconfessed mall freak and loves shopping, zooming up and down the aisles in her wheelchair, which is powered by two rechargeable 12volt batteries. The wheelchair’s instrument panel was specially designed for her so she can manipulate it with her stump.
“All the shop assistants know me and they help me get things off the shelf if my sister or a friend isn’t there with me.” Monica loves life and always makes the best of any situation. “People should realise nobody’s perfect. You can’t get angry at yourself or at life. Be positive. Just try and don’t give up."
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