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Head of UKZN’s Disability Unit, Mr Nevil
Balakrishna, presents Ms Gugu Madlala with a
token of appreciation in recognition of her being
the first disabled student of UKZN to participate
in a student exchange programme.

Bachelor of Social Science student, Ms Gugu Madlala, will become the first disabled UKZN student to embark on a student exchange programme when she leaves for the United States in January.

Confined to a wheel-chair as a result of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, Madlala will spend six months studying media and psychology at Drake University in Iowa. 

Madlala’s journey has not been easy. In 2004 when she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré, a rare and serious condition of the peripheral nervous system, the doctors told her there was no hope.  However, six months in hospital and seven years confined to a bed because of her paralysis did nothing to dampen Madlala’s indomitable spirit. 

Madlala woke up one morning to find she could move some of the fingers on her one hand.  The next day she could move her whole hand, followed by her other hand.  Physically her condition improved steadily until she was able to feed herself.

In January 2011, at the age of 37, Madlala told her family she was tired of staying at home and wanted to begin a new chapter in her life.  Madlala, a qualified teacher, decided to go to university and pursue her studies in a different area.  She applied to UKZN and was accepted to do a Bachelor of Social Science degree on the Pietermaritzburg campus.

Currently in her second year, Madlala said she had surprised herself by passing all her modules and even receiving some merit certificates. She applied for the student exchange programme because she wanted to prove that whatever the situation a person can still achieve their goals.

Speaking at a celebratory function for Madlala, Head of UKZN’s Disability Unit, Mr Nevil Balakrishna, said he viewed Madlala’s achievement as “a new beginning for all disabled students”.  He explained how on another level a bridge had been built between the Disability Office and the International Office – a relationship he hoped would grow and prosper. 

Balakrishna described Madlala’s achievement as ‘a big moment.  It challenges the University to recognise a sector it cannot ignore … to equalise opportunities is a challenge – this is one example where this has happened,’ he said. 

UKZN has over 350 disabled students and about 230 of them fall within the College of Humanities.  Balakrishna said most disabled students were not able to enjoy the total university experience, but Madlala’s achievement had opened up a totally new avenue. 

‘I am going to be the best ambassador for UKZN. I want to take my experiences and help the disability unit and other students,’ said Madlala. 

In the long term Madlala sees herself studying further or perhaps working in the media – one of her dreams is to be Head of the SABC – or even practising as a psychologist. 

She enjoys working with people who have disabilities and currently spends her holidays at Greys Hospital, talking to and motivating patients. She said, ‘As long as my story inspires others, I will be happy.’