Aware Bears – Harold Visits Limpopo

Thank you so much for inviting us here today. How wonderful it is to see a school like Mitchell House celebrating disability and creating awareness around disabilities and the challenges of people living with them. It is seldom you find schools such as yours embracing and including people living with disabilities into the mainstream and as a school you need to be commended for that.


When I was asked to share my experiences with you today I found it exceptionally difficult to see myself or my story as inspirational so this is a new perspective for me. But as I am putting things on paper this is what I would like to say.


Growing up with cerebral palsy in an environment where there was no one to really identify with made it difficult to establish my own normality. So I grew up spending most of my time trying to be normal and fit in. This was fairly ironic as I am anything but normal. As far back as I can remember it was instilled in me that I would one day have to provide for myself. The option of it being someone else’s job to look after me was very far removed from my reality and never an option.


From a small child wanting to wear roller-skates to my decision to become a teacher I have always been met with scepticism. I have spent a large amount of my time proving people wrong. If the scepticism was meant to deter me it had the opposite effect entirely. It fuelled my determination to succeed, if only to prove the impossible possible. Each obstacle enhanced my belief in myself and strengthened my spirituality.


I learnt it was important to be more like others and less like me if I were to fit in. I succeeded. I became a teacher, got married and had children.


However, sometimes when you think that you have figured everything out and you appear to have a handle on situations, life throws you a curve ball. In my case it was a stroke. After the stroke the full extent of my disability came to the fore. Where before I had a slight limp and my hand was only mildly affected, I lost function in both. I also lost my ability to speak clearly and concisely. I did what I do best. I adapted. All the while those around me continued to struggle to come to terms with the situation.


I choose to accept circumstances as they are rather than dwell on what I was capable of before. Admittedly this has not been an immediate reaction. I am indebted to my children who, from the onset, accepted who I now was and in turn allowed me to do the same. The stroke has allowed me to embrace my new uniqueness. Instead of feeling ashamed of what has made me different to everyone else. I have learnt to take pride in my individuality. I would never have done this in the past.


I have never lost my passion for teaching or for discovering my sense of self. I feel rather that I now know who I am and I am more at ease with myself. My goal of passing on knowledge and broadening horizons has always been the same but I have had to adapt my thinking and learn to let go of the conventional and listen more to that little voice inside my head that says don’t give up when everyone around me has.


I still feel like I have something to give and while my body may have given up my belief that my voice can still be heard is something I hold onto. I use it to motivate me especially on days when I think, ‘what’s the point’. I like to think that this unexpected detour in my road has not been in vain. I hold onto the hope that maybe in my own small way I can contribute and make a difference. Attitude is everything.


I would like to teach my children that whatever challenges you face in your life it is up to you to decide how you confront them, learn from them and find something positive to take from them. It’s your choice.


I don’t believe that my story is different from many others. The difference may only be that I have chosen to share mine with you. I am naïve and idealistic enough to believe that like Martin Luther King or Helen Keller (who had such conviction within themselves and their beliefs) it only takes one individual to stand up, be counted and make a difference. This is what truly motivates me.


Perhaps if we all made a positive difference in our own unique way we would feel more connected to each other and less afraid to be imperfect.


Many people when they think of disabilities think of the most obvious ones; sight and hearing. Disabilities that are tangible and we can understand. But there is a vast array of disabilities that exist that often are invisible and hard to explain.


Each of us at one time or another will be affected by disabilities either through family, friends or circumstance. While for one week we highlight the various disabilities you may be thinking, ‘what does this have to do with me and what am I supposed to do to change it?’ It’s simple. Your perception! You are never in charge of others perceptions but you control your own.


The other question you may be asking is, ‘What on earth can a bear do?’ It’s quite simple really. Harold’s job is to visit schools and generate discussions around disability. Harold lets people talk about what the word actually means, their perceptions and misconceptions and learning to engage with children that are ‘different’.


He also helps teachers and pupils understand what they can do to prepare for someone new being included into the school family. Believe it or not teachers sometimes need a bit of help too.


Harold makes it easier to ask difficult questions like what if …. and how should I react and he helps us think about things like, ‘what if it happened to me or someone and my family’ and ‘how do I react when I talk to people with disabilities’?


Think about what you can do to change the situation so that people with disabilities can take part more easily at school. It could be from class activities or during phys ed, break time activities and even extra murals. It could be as simple as changing the rules of a playground game to include everyone, offering to carry a satchel up the stairs or helping someone hold their ruler straight.


Think about how you would feel if the roles were reversed. Deciding to give someone a chance before knowing what they are capable of based on how they look is often the first step. It takes bravery and courage to be the one to ask the question or to hold out the helping hand but this is an opportunity to make a new friend and to make you a better person.


These are simple every day changes you can make but it’s up to you to make them.


Harold goal is to pave the way for those starting at a new school so that they can be met with security and confidence and that the friendships they forge are based on their abilities.


His hope is that these children’s new friends will help them to reach their full potential and, should they stumble along the way, be willing to put out a hand to help set them on their course again.


I leave you with this final thought. Helen Keller once said: “Happiness cannot come from without. It must come from within. It is not what we see and touch or that which others do for us which makes us happy; it is that which we think and feel and do, first for the other fellow and then for ourselves.”



Lesley Potgieter

May 2014

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