Local woman born with no limbs: 'Nothing can hold me back'

Monica Gerhard in her electric wheelchair(Photos: YOU\Lubabalo Lesolle)
Monica Gerhard in her electric wheelchair(Photos: YOU\Lubabalo Lesolle)
This article previously appeared in the print edition of YOU Magazine.

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.

(Photos: YOU\Lubabalo Lesolle)
She was born without arms or legs but has an irrepressible spirit. (Photos: YOU\Lubabalo Lesolle)

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.

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.

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.” 

(Photos: YOU\Lubabalo Lesolle)
When Monica teaches German or does translations, she uses her mouth to turn the pages of books. (Photos: YOU\Lubabalo Lesolle)
(Photos: YOU\Lubabalo Lesolle)
She types on a computer by wedging drumsticks or pencils between her chin and shoulder. (Photos: YOU\Lubabalo Lesolle)
(Photos: YOU\Lubabalo Lesolle)
WhatsApp chats and SMSes are done the same way. (Photos: YOU\Lubabalo Lesolle)

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."

*Covid-19 is keeping many of us indoors. Our shopping trips have become brief, normal activities have been halted. Many have been wondering if they’ll still get their copy of their favourite YOU magazine. And how will we find things to do while indoors.

Though YOU magazine is available in most grocery stores, you can also subscribe online with no fuss. Click here to purchase a digital copy.

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