In South Africa, the word “freedom” can mean many different things to many different people, but for Eric Miles Cheshire Home resident Julian Peters, freedom is the ability to reach your dreams without physical limitations holding you back.
Mr Peters is a quadriplegic with no mobility in his hands or legs, but he has fought for his freedom to education and is reaching his dreams after graduating with his Diploma in Human Resources Management, at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).
“After I became paralysed, people told me that I don’t have to go back to school because in my situation people will look after me. But I didn’t want that. My father was persistent that I must finish school,” he said.
“I was the first quadriplegic to finish school at Jan Kriel School in Kuils River, and for the next three years I struggled to get into a tertiary institution.
“People with disabilities are discriminated against, but now I enjoy Freedom Day, we are all equal and treated equally.”
Mr Peters was not always wheelchair bound, and once dreamt of being a professional cricket player before tragedy struck.
“The accident happened in 2005, September 3, when I went on my confirmation camp with the St George’s Anglican Church in Kuils River. I was 16, turning 17 the next month, and you know how guys mess around with each other at that age.
“My friend and I decided the only way we’ll wake up for a workshop we had the next day is if we dive into the pool.
“I dove in with my head first and didn’t use my arms. With the impact of the water, it must’ve pushed my neck so that my spine snapped. So as soon as I dived in I was paralysed.”
After being under water for about five minutes, those around him realised something was wrong and dived in to save him.
“I thought it was only the shock of the cold water which made me immobilised. They got me onto the floor, and I felt like I was floating because I couldn’t feel anything. I wasn’t in any pain. I was fine, I was communicating and told them I’m coming back now, I’m just waiting on an ambulance,” said Mr Peters.
But he never made it back to his confirmation camp. He spent his confirmation and 17th birthday in rehab with friends and family, who also went to rehab to learn how to care for him.
“I was told I will be paralysed and won’t be able to do anything for myself. I just accepted it. A friend asked me how I felt knowing that I won’t play cricket anymore. Then reality hit me.
“I realised that I won’t be able to do anything for myself, and I wanted to become a professional cricket player,”
Although Mr Peters was told he wouldn’t be able to do anything for himself, today, with the help of an electric wheelchair, he is completely mobile and stays on his own at Eric Miles Cheshire Home in Bothasig. He gets around using the MyCiTi bus and Dial-A-Ride. He uses a modus mouth piece to operate his phone or laptop.
“I’m supposed to be paralysed from the neck down and I’m not supposed to use this wheelchair, but look at me now. When I applied for university they asked for a doctor’s report, and in my report they said I need 24-hour care.
“Universities thought I would be a lot of money to take in because I would need someone by my side all the time. One lady told me that hundreds of able-bodied people come here to study and only 10 graduate, so what’s my chances of graduating, being disabled,” said Mr Peters.
Although he was shot down on several occasions, he persisted for three years and was eventually accepted at CPUT.
Mr Peters now works as an assistant in the library department at the university while studying part time.
“My father and I wanted them to adapt the institution. Each university has a disability unit that’s supposed to help you. Luckily, we met Dr Nina du Toit at CPUT, and she helped a lot. It’s my duty to go to lecturers and explain my situation to them, and my first lecturer was very helpful.
“I made friends, no troubles and lecturers have been accommodating. Students have been accommodating and take out my laptop for me when I go to class.
“They”ll ask me at lunch time if I ate yet, and offer to feed me. I even use the disability unit less,” said Mr Peters.
He has big plans for his future and will work in the human resources department at Haw & Inglis civil engineering company once he completes his studies at the end of the year.