SU's Rector and Vice-chancellor, Prof Wim de Villiers announced late last year that 2020 will be the university's Year for Persons with Disability. It will culminate in the sixth African Network for Evidence-to- Action in Disability (AfriNEAD) conference, a prestigious international network that will be hosted by SU from the 30 November to 3 December 2020. To honour this the Transformation Office and the Disability Unit, along with AfriNEAD, will publish monthly reflections or articles by persons with disabilities. Our fifth piece is written by Ulf-Dieter Koepp, a junior technical officer, in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
I am Ulf-Dieter Koepp from Windhoek. I was born deaf with a cleft palate. My deafness is a result of my mother having had German measles during her pregnancy. My mother taught me lipreading when I was a very little boy, and my schooling took place at Dominican Grimley School for the Deaf in Hout Bay from about 1982 to 1998.
I have now been working at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU) for over three years as a junior technical officer. Before SU, I used to work on testing various applications by using Android Studio and MIT App Inventor (online). One of my many ideas was the one on Ava (https://www.ava.me/
). I also assist the Humarga Helpdesk by monitoring personal computers and printers and stocking up paper reams. I have about five years of experience as a printer technician with various companies.
I was at a crossroads at the beginning of 2017, one year after the start of my employment at SU and my mother's sudden death in June 2016. I had been used to being deaf for 41 years, but this was not the case with the 'Big C'. At that crossroads, that 'C', nasopharyngeal carcinoma, held a gun to my head.
How did this cruel thief sneak into my body? Why had I not noticed this earlier? The fact was that I had booked air tickets to Namibia for a three-week vacation in November 2016, not knowing that I would be heading into another unknown direction. I had asked the ear, nose and throat surgeon whether I qualified for a cochlear implantation as a new candidate. Boom – the radiologist discovered a mass lesion deep in my left nasopharynx section after CT and MRI scans had been completed. It was presumed to be Stage 1 – so early! But within two weeks, it had grown to Stage 2. I had no symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, swollen neck, severe headaches or persistent sinus issues.
How exactly did I manage to pull through? I used to think that SU was anything but a normal employer when it came to annual leave and sick leave, but I was shocked to see how it had structured sick leave in a way that went beyond my logic. I know that with any company, when illness struck an employee, the standard procedure was to grant that employee a limited grace period. However, when I looked at the way in which sick leave was structured, I thought, “Am I seeing something that is unique?" When an employee is extremely ill for a long time, SU has something called 'disability cover', which is extremely helpful in covering the loss of income. Indeed, SU is an upfront-unified-unbeatable, one-of-a-kind employer that is really committed to its students and staff, also a staff member with a disability!
Yes, I came out as a cancer warrior in complete remission in August 2017 and still am to date. To be a warrior is all about riding through the storms and finding the sunshine one day. Everything before my official diagnosis and during the treatments stripped me as if I were an onion being peeled away. Never had I thought that my theological studies at Cape Theological Seminary (Pentecostal-Charismatic Bible College, 1999 to 2002) would one day be put to the test when the 'Big C' interrupted my life like a Goliath.
Did I manage to obtain the implant? Unfortunately, not yet, but I am aware that Discovery Health does fund this type of operation from benefits. Both my oncologist and ear, nose and throat surgeon wonder whether I am still keen on cochlear implantation. The truth is that it does not always suit everyone.
My advice to other people with loss of hearing, based on my experiences at SU, is to be yourself and to keep your flame burning to inspire the person next to you. You are an asset. Go after small mercies that may transform your way of thinking and adapting.