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Saved by his friends in 1994 from a diving accident that left him paralysed, Alan Downey did not take his second chance in life for granted. Instead, he made a conscious decision to live his life to the fullest.
Growing up in East London in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Downey had an active lifestyle including cross country running, swimming and athletics. This all changed when his friends pulled him out of a river with a broken neck.
“I hit a sand bank while diving. I could not move and my head was submerged under the water,” shares Downey.
“I was sent to Conradie Spinal Unit in Cape Town for an operation and went through five months of rehabilitation. I was classified as a C5 quadriplegic which meant that I had no feeling from the chest down and limited use of my arms.
“This meant that I lost my independence and my job, and my parents had to look after me. I had moments of what ifs, but one of my friends advised me that the sooner I accepted my disability, the sooner I could get on with my life. I then decided to use painting as therapy and I began to explore the world of computers.
“My accident pushed me onto a path to a life of different opportunities and experiences. If I had remained focused on only recovering from my injury, I would have lost out on all the positives that it has brought.”
Improving access for people with disabilities
In 2008, he registered his first business developing cartoons that shared daily struggles of persons living with disability for a magazine called Rolling Inspiration.
Fast forward to 2017, his second business venture, Disability Info South Africa (DISA) became a reality following seven years of research and development. This innovation is a website that would provide free information for persons with disabilities.
“We supply a central repository of information for the four main disability groups in South Africa, which include persons with mobility impairments, hearing impairments, visual impairments and intellectual impairments,” he adds.
With the intention to bring awareness and easy access to information for persons with disabilities, the site links the information with relevant service providers to assist them. Downey believes that access to equipment, information, services, education, buildings, transport, health care, and sports is a basic human right that is fundamental to create an inclusive South Africa.
Downey has experienced many challenges on his journey that need serious intervention going forward. The aviation industry in South Africa, for example, still lacks in providing a comfortable travelling experience for persons with disabilities.
He was recently exposed to a situation that resulted in extensive damage to his wheelchair due to negligence by ground staff, however he identified the experience as an opportunity to play his part and change the status quo.
Since then, Downey has been asked to provide guidance for a key player in the aviation industry that is responsible for airport ground services. He will be advising its management team on how to upskill, train and recruit staff that will deal specifically with passengers with reduced mobility.
DISA has recently been awarded R300 000 in grant funding and business support at this year’s SAB Foundation Social Innovation and Disability Empowerment Awards for its contribution in solving issues that persons with disabilities face.
“I am excited to advocate for persons with disabilities,” says Downey.
“I have met amazing people and organisations who have shown me great support and this has made it easier for me to continue to pursue access for all, with expert advice on how I can achieve my business goals.”
Founded in 2010, the SAB Foundation provides grant funding for small, medium and micro-sized enterprises in order to contribute to the economic and social empowerment of historically disadvantaged persons through entrepreneurship development. More than R425 million to date has been invested in social innovation, disability empowerment and SMMEs.