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Interview: Dirk Van Der Merwe

Dirk Van Der Merwe is a long-term colleague and friend of Ikkaido. He is a mentor, assessor and tutor at Ikkaido, helping to support people with their lives every day. Dirk was working as a police officer in South Africa when he experienced a life changing event at the age of 23: he was injured in a car crash leaving him T9 and T10 paraplegic. This accident altered the course of Dirk's life forever. In 2009, Dirk was looking for people to help with self-defence and came across Ray Sweeney, founder of Ikkaido, through LinkedIn. After "losing everything" and being in financial ruin, Ray helped Dirk move to the UK permanently so that he could work with Ikkaido long-term.

Dirk has been an invaluable member of the Ikkaido team, increasing the wellbeing of staff and the people we work with enormously, whilst also leading many of our projects, wellbeing programmes and coaching martial art sessions. Dirk has a wealth of experience working with people with disabilities and with people who are disadvantaged. In light of Disability Pride Month, we asked Dirk to talk about his own experience as a person who is disabled and share his thoughts on Disability Pride Month, along with imparting some of his wisdom.

Pictured: Dirk Van Der Merwe in Buckinghamshire winning Coach of the Year, 2016.

What barriers have you faced?

"This is my 26th year in a wheelchair. There are countless barriers I face every day. The most obvious barriers are the disabling infrastructural ones, such as the lack of access to buildings and toilets. Airports and aeroplanes are other places where I frequently encounter barriers. I do a lot of flying for my job and with every flight I take there is trouble getting me on and off the plane. Often in airports, non-disabled people use the restroom that is designated for disabled people, and it ends up filthy. Of course, the difference between myself and them is that they have the choice to use another restroom stall, whereas I do not.

There are also the personal and social barriers. People's views and expectations for you change. I remember when I left the hospital for the first time after my accident, people were looking at me differently. I became very self-conscious and it's something I had to learn to deal with.

I also found that there was stigma in sport, too. I do martial arts and, at the beginning, after my accident, I found it difficult to even find a martial arts coach who would teach me. I discovered that people in the sport looked down on me and felt that I could no longer participate in it. I realised that people with disabilities face huge stigma in sport.

"...after my accident, I found it difficult to even find a martial arts coach who would teach me... I realised that people with disabilities face huge stigma in sport."

There are also financial barriers, some of which I experienced after my accident. I was living in South Africa, and I had lost my job. When I was there, I saw other disabled people, like myself, be taken advantage of and financially exploited. After collecting their dole money and disability benefits, their 'carers' would steal the money from them. Not only are there fewer employment opportunities, as I experienced, but you are more vulnerable to financial exploitation, too.

How have you overcome them?

Dirk, UK Sport Ambassador, 2016.

"I have learnt a great deal in the years since the accident. One of the most important lessons I have learnt is to ask for help when I need it. Acceptance is another key lesson; learning to accept that there are many tasks that I can do and other tasks that I need help with.

The brilliant thing is that many of the barriers you face can be fixed yourself. Facing disabling factors in life forces you to become strong and versatile. I have learnt to adapt in many areas of my life, from the way I participate in sport to the lay out of my house, making it more accessible to me.

Adaptation and accessibility are what I value and appreciate most about Ikkaido. At the core of everything we do is the concept that we make whatever we are doing accessible to everybody. We have truly unique and innovative ways of working and it has increased the levels of engagement and participation in our programmes and projects so much.

I have come to learn that what has to be overcome most of all is changing people's attitudes. I have seen it done in martial arts and sport. Nothing is impossible when it comes to inclusion — you just need innovation. The inclusive ethos can be extended beyond the realm of sport and into all areas of public life. Then we will really see change.

"I have come to see that what has to be overcome most of all is changing people's attitudes."

The final thing I have learnt is to surrender control. I ask myself, 'can I control this?' If I can't, I let it be. If I can, I change it to benefit me. Learning to go with the flow has been crucial to my lived experience as a disabled person and for my wellbeing, too. As we've seen during the past two years, plans change, and it is about learning to adapt to the changes. Sometimes there's nothing you can do about it and the only choice you have is to accept it and go with the flow."

Dirk winning Disability Coach of the Year in 2016.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

"Still with Ikkaido. Ikkaido means so much to me and I’m very proud to be part of Ikkaido. I want to carry on with the work that we do here."

What would you say to other people facing the same barriers to you?

Dirk, pictured on the far right in the high-vis jacket, at one of Ikkaido's projects on inclusive entrepreneurship called "In Touch".

"Firstly, don't be afraid to ask for help. Whether you are disabled or not, everybody needs help in life.

Secondly, there will be bad days, but they will become less frequent the more time goes on. Once you realise you are the one with the power to get yourself out of it, you will, and that is a very empowering feeling. Of course, you have the right to feel sorry for yourself for a while – everyone does. But then you must pull yourself up and take charge of yourself. Hope is the best thing in the world. My belief system is my rock."

What does Disability Pride Month mean to you?

"People think – and I was one of those people – that it only happens to some people, but that it won't happen to you. It is important to remember that 20% of the global population is disabled. Only 18% of disabled people were born disabled. 82% became disabled as they went through life. Therefore, everyone has a very big chance of becoming disabled. As you become older, you become more disabled; it is just part of life. People need to start realising that there is a very big chance that it will happen to them and start to want to change society so that it is more accessible and accepting of people who are disabled.

It is fantastic that Disability Pride Month shines a light on disability for a month, but it should be thought about, reflected on, and acknowledged in life every single day. Disability doesn’t just exist for a month; it is here for life. After the month, then what?

"Disability doesn’t just exist for a month; it is here for life."

I'll tell you what disability awareness means to me; it means seeing me. Seeing us. In the first three months after I had my accident, I remember my parents were constantly questioning, 'can a wheelchair go there?' They started seeing the disabling design of everything around us. Once you are aware of them, you can see how disabling barriers affect your life, and what exactly needs to change."


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תגובה אחת

Ray Sweeney
Ray Sweeney
30 ביולי 2021

Excellent article, very informative

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