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Gavin Fouche is a consultant on the Premium Service Desk and Internal Staff helpline, in the Customer Care division at Vodacom. This year marks his 20th year working at Vodacom.
Could you please give us a brief overview of your disability and the challenges it brings to your daily life?
I was born with a rare condition known as Moebius syndrome. It is a kind of facial paralysis that often affects other areas of the body as well, like chest wall abnormalities and limb deformities. In addition to the facial paralysis, I have deformed hands and low muscle tone in my upper arms. The cause is still unknown and it affects about one in a million people worldwide. So I am quite literally a one in a million kind of guy.
I've lived with it for over forty years so there are few hurdles I haven't overcome. Opening cans and jars etc can be an issue but I've found ways around that over the years. The truly disabling thing about the disability is not the disability itself to me, but it's how society perceives disabled people. Society depicts a disability equating to being useless or malfunctioning. If you block your PUK number on a cellphone it says it is disabled, which basically means it's useless. We are not totally useless because we have disabilities. It’s only a small part of us that is affected. It's difficult for some people to see beyond that and see your positive attributes and what you can contribute. Prejudice is a mountain I have yet to move.
How has Vodacom as a company adapted to assist you with your disability?
Throughout my life and especially my years at Vodacom, I have never wanted to be singled out in any way for being disabled or treated like I am "special". I am very stubborn about that. What impressed me hugely when I started at the company in 2000 was how easily people here were able to see past my disability and see me as a person. In my previous place of employment, I was made to feel a bit like the office "charity case". It was very dehumanizing. Here I was seen for who I am and not what I have. It was part of a company culture built by the staff at the time of my employment.
Many years ago I had a designated computer where I sat in the call centre which had Zoom Text software loaded on it so that it enabled me to see the text better. But these days the functionality is available on most operating systems like Windows by default.
I also requested that the fluorescent light directly above my desk be switched off, because of the syndrome that I have my eyes don’t close properly and therefore become dry and irritated by certain types of lighting. This affected me, especially on a nightshift.
Which technologies have helped you and other people with disabilities, and how?
When I was of school-going age my parents feared that I might not be able to get a normal education as I couldn't yet use my hands to write. At the time it was believed, despite having many hand surgeries to improve the use of my hands, that I may never be able to do so by the medical experts. For my 7th birthday, my parents gave me a Brother electronic typewriter which they came across while grocery shopping at the local Pick ‘n Pay Hypermarket. It was very hi-tech and futuristic for 1984! It had a built-in screen that allows you to make corrections before it hits the page, and most important – it was light and completely portable. It had a handle on it and looked like a small suitcase. Something a certain 8-fingered, 7 year old had no trouble carrying to and from school, and later from class to class. I still have it and it still works – 37 years later! It must be the Nokia 3310 of typewriters! These days everybody mistakes it for a laptop when they see it, it was far ahead of its time.
I did eventually learn to use my hands to write. I had to figure out my own way though and not do it how they were teaching me to do it. From the 7th grade onwards I started writing my school work instead of typing it. Again, I wanted to be just like my friends and that was the reason I kept on trying until I got it right.
What do you wish able-bodied people did more of / less of for people who have a disability – at home, socially and in the workplace?
I wish that people would be able to look beyond face value. What you see isn’t necessarily what you get when it comes to disability. We – especially South Africans – come in all shapes, sizes, colours, religions, and genders. Disability is no different from that. We have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else. You aren’t handed a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card when you have a disability. You still have to live as meaningful a life as possible. Instead of being regarded as “charity cases” we need to be empowered to be the best we can be. There are forward-thinking people who see and understand this and are prepared to give us chances, but there aren’t enough in the world who can do this, I believe. Many are still stuck in the old prejudices and beliefs about people with disabilities.
Who are some of your role models - who have a disability?
The actor Christopher Reeve has been a role model to me as a person with a disability. I saw the first Superman movie when I was a boy, and I was one of those kids who had the whole super-hero outfit. I ate, slept and even went to school in it – thank goodness cellphone cameras and social media had yet to be invented!
Then when he had his accident and became disabled I felt especially sorry for him as I think it’s harder to suddenly become disabled than to be born with a disability. I have been disabled since day one, and have known no other way of life. I don’t know what it’s like to have normal functioning hands or to be able to smile or frown – but to me that’s okay. I’m happy with who and how I am. Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone with a disability, this is just my personal point of view.
What really impressed me about Christopher Reeve is that he not only bounced back from that accident, but he turned his disadvantage into an advantage and used it to bring attention to the research into spinal cord damage. The guy who played Superman in the movies actually proved himself to be a superman in real life too.
To this end, I was inspired to get involved with the Moebius syndrome community around the world. In about 2009 a friend from the US who also has Moebius syndrome and I started The Many Faces Of Moebius Syndrome, and launched a Moebius Syndrome Awareness Day which is observed annually on the 24th of January every year.
This is not only to create awareness about the syndrome itself but to create awareness of those who have it. What we didn’t quite foresee at the time was the benefit it would have for those who have it. It’s been heart-warming to see colleagues who have embraced their fellow employees who have Moebius, and kids who can now feel safe to tell their classmates about their condition. When you have a rare condition it can be a bit like living on a different planet at times. No one really understands you or your life, but having this awareness day has had the dual effect of changing people’s perceptions and making those who have it feel good about themselves too.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 15% of the world's population has a disability and only 48% of working-age people living with a disability are employed. These stats show that it is critical that companies become more inclusive and embrace diversity in all its forms. This is why Vodacom has made it our mission to build an inclusive culture where everyone is respected, can be themselves and strives to be their best.
Click here for more information about the benefits of working at Vodacom or here to read another interview of someone from Vodacom living with a disability.