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29 August 2017
Class Of 2017: Matthys Odendal

Class Of 2017: Dr Matthys Odendal - I did it for them

“In a world that’s becoming more and more visual, the lived experience of the blind - incorporating other senses of touch, hearing, smell and taste - provides an example of how narrowly the world understands the concept of functional literacy. There’s more to it - much more - than just visually-based reading and writing.”

Just how much more is demonstrated in Beyond the glass ceiling: Towards a multi-sensorial definition of functional literacy, the thesis that earned Matthys Odendal his PhD in Linguistics at the graduation ceremony held at the University of the Western Cape on 29 August 2017.

“In this thesis, I take the reader on a journey into the lives of those with visual disabilities, and how this dark world could shed light on our understanding of functional literacy,” he says.

Within the parameters of the Social Literacy Approach, New Literacy Studies and Literacy Landscapes, with the example of the everyday literacy skills of blind people, Matthys motivates for a broader understanding of the concept of functional literacy.

But his motivation lies far deeper than merely an academic contribution to the field of linguistics. Growing up visually disabled himself, Matthys developed a personal, lived and emotional experience of the world of those with visual challenges.

“I still remember how I grew up always feeling different,” he says. “I even looked different with my thick glasses that looked like the bottom of cooldrink bottles.”

At first Matthys was placed in a mainstream primary school in a small Karoo town, but it wasn’t an easy time.

“I sat in front of the class to try to see what the teacher was writing on the blackboard, and lunch times when other boys played ball sports I could not partake,” he explains. “I had to face constant bullying for being different. I felt alone.”

On advice from an ophthalmologist his parents placed him, aged 12, in the the Pioneer School for the Visually Disabled in Worcester. Difficult at first for being so far away from home, it proved to be the best thing that could have happened to him.

“At school I didn’t feel so different anymore,” he says. “I excelled and was motivated to become the best person I could. It is here that my world opened up by experiencing first-hand the lived experience of the visually disabled.”

After he matriculated he went on to study Communication Science at the University of the Free State - a challenging period of adaptation.

“Suddenly my safe world where I felt I belonged was turned on its head again,” Matthys explains. “At first I could not follow lectures where lecturers made use of visual technology. I wrote down class notes from those sitting next to me, hoping that their notes were correct.”

But he persevered, eventually completing a Masters in Communication Science.

His communications career took off, first as Communications Officer at the Free State Department of Health, then as Communications Manager at the Bible Society of South Africa, and leading to his current position as Media Spokesperson for the Western Cape Provincial Parliament.

“But my past was still knocking at my door,” he says. “I wanted to give the normal, seeing world a glimpse into the lives of those less fortunate - those with visual disabilities.”

He joined an NGO called BlindSA with the aim of empowering the visually disabled, and that’s where the seed for his thesis started to grow.

In 2010 Matthys enrolled for a PhD at the Department of Linguistics at the University of the Western Cape under Senior Professor Christopher Stroud.

“I remember the first day I drove onto campus on my way to meet my supervisor,” he says. “I was met with a campus that truly epitomizes an inclusive South Africa. I saw students walking around from different backgrounds, creeds, cultures; those with disabilities. And I knew I was at the right place.”

With continued hard work, still in his demanding job at the Provincial Parliament, he persevered - and finally it paid off. But he didn’t do it alone.

“This would not have been possible without the support and continued belief of my husband, parents, family, friends and colleagues,” he says. “But most of all, it would definitely not have been possible without the support of my blind friends who collaborated in this study.”

But work this important is never really done.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but one thing is for certain: it is not ending here,” Dr Odendal says determinedly. “I will continue to champion the cause of those with disabilities. This degree means a lot to me, but it’s not just about me - I did it for them.”

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