Inclusive Tourism Leader Interview: Ari Seirlis - by Monica Guy


Ari Seirlis: Former National Director of the QuadPara Association of South Africa/ Parliamentary Candidate for the Independent Democrats



Loved by some, feared by others, appreciated by many, Ari Seirlis is a stalwart of the disability community of South Africa and a thorn in the side of those who disregard the rights of people with disabilities.


A dynamic man and tireless worker with strong passions and a penchant for publicity, Ari has recently resigned from his six-year tenure as National Director of the QuadPara Association of South Africa (QASA) in order to pursue a political career with the Independent Democrats. As number three on the minority party's national list, he hopes that South Africa's general elections on 22 April will sweep him into a seat in Parliament.


With a background in business and many years of experience under his belt, Ari is far from being your average guy in a wheelchair. Renowned for his bold statements and even more audacious public campaigns and protests, he is arguably South Africa's most well-known - and notorious - personality in the disability community.


From his office in Durban, Ari gives us a glimpse of what lies beyond.


You're spent the last six years lobbying, criticising, and cajoling politicians about disability issues. Now you're joining them. What do you think you'll achieve from within Parliament that you couldn't achieve from the outside?

I would like to establish relationships and partnerships with people who are representing disability in the ruling party, which will almost certainly be the ANC, and in other political parties. Through these relationships I will try to influence both strategy and implementation and encourage performance.


I do think that over the last few years the government has had no pressure from an opposition party to do very much at all for people with disabilities. In fact, apart from the ANC, there are no members with disabilities in the minority parties! Furthermore, people who represent disabilities in the ANC are in a very difficult position to challenge their own party and ministries on the delivery of services and rights.


It will surely take some time to understand the avenues and the various committee functions and the way things are done in Parliament, but I'm convinced this is the way I can get even more done for the people with disabilities of South Africa. 


How much clout will you have as a member of a minority party? How will you approach your job as an MP, assuming all goes well on election day?

That is something which has to be tested. I do believe that the Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille has a lot of respect in the political arena, more than any other leader of any other political party. She is known to be a woman of courage and conviction.


My approach will be to try and establish as many relationships and partnerships as possible. On my own, I would be helpless. I'll be "selling" disability issues and the benefit of them as well as challenging other political parties on their stand.


I also want to test the value and strength of the Equality Court on a number of issues.


What are your priorities? What advances would you like to see in the field of disability rights in the next few years?

One major issue for people with disabilities is accessible transport, so that will be one of my first priorities. I will be closely monitoring the progress of the bus rapid transit programme, which is gradually being implemented - it must be made accessible to all.


Apart from accessible transport, I will be focusing on national building regulations and pushing for some major changes to reflect universal design policies.


Education, too: I would like to see the integrated schooling programme work so that children with disabilities can receive the same education as ordinary South Africans and be integrated in the same environment.


And, of course, money. The disability grant given to quadriplegic and paraplegic people in South Africa is disgracefully low and the way in which it is distributed is in desperate need of refining.


And there are so many other issues of which I still need to understand and prioritize.


Let's talk about your achievements so far. What are you most proud of?

I am very proud of the fact that we, at QASA, have invested so much effort in prevention. We don't only support people who are already disabled, we try to prevent the accidents which lead to severe disability. One of our most high-profile campaign slogans is: "Buckle Up: We Don't Want New Members" - a catchy slogan that most people in South Africa have now heard. We also released a series of TV advertisements highlighting the dangers of diving into the sea as a cause of spinal cord injury. They stick in the mind....


Rolling Inspiration, our in-house magazine, is another one of our most ambitious and successful projects. It is the only disability lifestyle magazine in South Africa and contains a host of useful and fun information. The magazine will soon be relocating all of its travel tips and sports articles to a public file on the website, so that travellers with disabilities from all over the world can access them.


Our BAGS OF HOPE project involves giving everyone who leaves hospital with paraplegia or quadriplegia a kind of "goody bag", with information, advice, a few free goodies. A survey form in the same bag allows us to understand our membership as it grows, and ensures that we have the most comprehensive database in the country of people with spinal cord injuries.


We also support our members in their bid to find gainful employment. I am very proud of the fact that we will be opening our own Pick 'n Pay Family store this year, which will be run by a quadriplegic who has just completed 2 years at the Pick n Pay College.

We have developed two Computer Digital Villages, a Call Centre, Mobile Telephone businesses for our members, completed 3 learnerships for our members and probably most significant, we own our own rehabilitation Centre in Port Elizabeth.  Many of these ventures are run by QASA members. This will help to sustain QASA for many years and allow the organisation to offer more and more valuable support to members in the field of employment. For example, we now offer IT training courses and have just supported eight of our members in their bid to start phone operator businesses with Vodacom. 


How has your diploma in marketing and your business experience helped your work at QASA?

Certainly, having a marketing background has been very good for QASA. The brand is prominent, the organisation is well known, and people now understand and acknowledge the acronym. Having some business experience has definitely influenced the strategy that I took regarding the sustainability of the organisation.

There is no reason why a charity has to remain on their hands and knees begging for handouts, I looked at a business model and it has worked for us.


This has also been acknowledged by the corporate sector who support us. Vodacom, Pick 'n Pay, Coloplast, Alexander Forbes, SAB and many others have supported our projects over the years.


You often go beyond simple campaigns and projects, though. At a recent protest outside the office of the Institute of Architects, you and your fellow demonstrators burnt wheelchair tyres in protest against the office's lack of accessibility. Why do you choose to use such militant tactics?

These type of tactics are not uncommon in our country. They attract the attention of the media, they show that we are resilient and serious about what we mean and say, and at the end of the day we generally get results.


It is a long time since people with disabilities have taken to the streets in anger about a dispute that is transgressing human rights. Often, people with disabilities are just sidelined. In this case, we registered the protest before going ahead, we advised the media, we chose specifically to burn wheelchair tyres, and we delivered a memorandum to the President of the Institute.  It worked!


Do your attention-grabbing tactics work? Do you get the attention you deserve?

 Of course the tactics worked. Architects in particular can either be our greatest ally or our worst enemy. In this particular case, the fact that their offices were inaccessible - steps up to the entrance, no wheelchair accessible toilet - was an absolute insult, and furthermore made a joke of their integrity. I don't think they ever believed that we would come to protest en masse to their offices.


Our trump card was not in fact the protest on the day, but the fact that we wrote to the International Union of Architects, requesting them to consider taking away the world conference from Durban in 2014 unless they made to the premises accessible. This particular correspondence was very effective.


You're renowned for being a man of action, always working, always on the go. What drives you? Has your work changed you?

I have often thought about this, I am probably a little bit obsessive about my work, and I wish I could slow down a little bit. I am driven by the fact that people with disabilities have got a bad deal here in South Africa. I am one of the lucky ones, who got a good education, and have the capacity to make a difference.


Certainly, after my accident, my life has taken a new turn. I have got to understand the value of human development over and above anything else.


What do you do to wind down?

 I enjoy a little bit of reading, I do a lot of thinking whilst fly-fishing, I have a lot of fun in the bush riding my quad bike, I get a lot of exercise using my hand-cycle, and I generally do a lot of laughing around the braai [barbecue].


What advice would you give people with disabilities in South Africa?

 Fight for your rights: they exist, we just need to ensure that we live them. Let us use all the legislation we have to ensure that our lives benefit from this.


And in conclusion... Anything else you would like to tell the world about?

I am very proud about the fact that disability is on the agenda in this country. Thank you to those who made sure of this. I am committed to developing relationships, to listening well, to responding even better, to working hard, negotiating, consulting........ all in the interests of improving the lives of persons with disabilities in South Africa.


This interview was done by travel writer Monica Guy


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