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Quad dynamo’s Durban farewell

Friends join quadriplegic legend Ari Seirlis celebrating his 60th birthday on Durban’s beachfront promenade. Picture: Duncan Guy

Friends join quadriplegic legend Ari Seirlis celebrating his 60th birthday on Durban’s beachfront promenade. Picture: Duncan Guy

Published May 21, 2022


Durban - “Durban broke my neck. Durban fixed me and Durban gave me a place to live, work and achieve,” says quadriplegic legend Ari Seirlis, as he packs his bags for the Western Cape village of his childhood holidays, his extended family and his mother’s roots.

Having just reached 60, the former CEO of QuadPara Association of South Africa (Qasa) has packed his memoirs of activism and organising into his book “Wheels of Fire”, now with a local publisher, and is leaving Durban with advice to become the world’s top destination for the mobility impaired.

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The beachfront promenade was his venue of choice to celebrate his “coming of age” on Sunday. Friends joined him on foot, some with their dogs, some on wheelchairs, and one or two on bicycles for a “6 000-step” walk from Pirates Lifesaving Club to Blue Lagoon and back.

“Don’t let the old man in,” he told his guests, referring to the song that encourages living actively into old age, by Tony Keith, in a Clint Eastwood movie.

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Seirlis was speaking while sharing breakfast rolls, and gin and tonics, just 200m from where, 38 years ago, he had his accident while diving on an advertising film shoot. Addington Hospital, just a few kilometres down the beachfront, would then become his home for many months.

The journey between the old Water World and the hospital was neither Seirlis’s first, nor his last. Before his accident, he and 19 others in the Durban Mile Club would, once a year, move between the 19 pubs between the Blue Waters and the Malibu hotels, “starting in the morning and ending in the evening”.

Since his accident, he has travelled in his wheelchair 170 times in Park Runs between the accident site, now Suncoast, and Addington.

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Angela Bax, quadriplegic legend Ari Seirlis’s sister, offers a helping back to Gill Fraser as she signs his birthday card, on Durban’s beachfront promenade, while his old chum Bruce Robertson looks on. Picture: Duncan Guy

“One hundred and seventy times between where I broke my neck and was treated,” he repeated later in the week to the Independent on Saturday, at his Gillitts home, where he has lived with carers and close to his sister Angela Bax. She, with her husband Craig, are also moving to Sedgefield, where the siblings’ grandmother Nellie Downes was once mayor.

It is to Seirlis’s credit that the architecture fraternity around the world applies universal access in all learning and teaching to architecture and design students, after he was instrumental in getting the World Architecture Conference, in Durban in 2014, to sign a memorandum to that effect, he said.

Similarly, it is through his campaigning that many of Durban’s attractions are wheelchair-friendly. Among these are uShaka Sea World, Moses Mabhida Stadium, and the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Conference Centre. He’s also behind the wheelchair-friendly box at King’s Park and Mini Town becoming a social enterprise, operating as a business with the aim of raising funds for charity.

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He was also involved with the access and design of King Shaka International Airport as well as the management of people with disabilities within that infrastructure. The Airports Company of SA gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2019.

Business has a solid place in Seirlis’s outlook on how the disabled fit into society.

“We’re not a corporate social responsibility. You don’t need to support us because you have to. There’s money to be made,” he stressed, noting that people in wheelchairs could enjoy Durban’s promenade, accessing the sea in beach wheelchairs, for which he lobbied, watching sport, and other activities in the city.

“People have not seen us as consumers,” added Seirlis, who has twice received mayoral awards for promoting tourism in the city.

While Seirlis has lobbied for society to accommodate the disabled – infrastructure and transport being two key areas – he has also encouraged disabled people to try to be consumers. That means being economically active and sociable, even dissuading them from being boarded, which employers often want.

“Board them and they end up hating life,” he said.

“They get out of the loop, they miss the camaraderie, they’re not in circulation and their friendships become zero.

“The whole secret behind forgetting what happened to you is getting up and being able to circulate, keeping your network and your friendships. You need employment to be able to afford to socialise. That way, you make your journeys happen,” he said.

Seirlis said that hearing the stories of people’s journeys helped him understand what Qasa could do.

“The interesting stories behind most people are not captured. If you stop and listen to people’s stories, you can learn a lot. They will tell you how they recovered, how they coped.

“And they’re proud.”

Seirlis, who is a marketing graduate, said he made a habit of hearing the story of every person with a spinal cord injury.

“It gave me insight into solving the problems,” he said.

Today he leaves for Istanbul, Turkey, to tell an audience at a Danish-owned incontinence (catheters and urine bags) manufacturing company his life story and to offer advice to its sales team on emerging markets.

When it comes to Seirlis’s own story of adapting to life as a quadriplegic, he said: “Having lost my legs, I had to find my feet.

“I had to take a fresh look at the skills and resources I needed.”

Then, he had to find his “what”.

“What direction would I go? Become an entrepreneur, an employee?” he pondered.

Lastly, he had to find his “why”.

“My purpose. That was the secret,” he said

Seirlis said once he had found these things, it was time “to put the line into water”.

“Like fishing for grunter instead of trout,” said the passionate fisherman.

The Independent on Saturday

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