Interview

"Disability Can Be an Opportunity" The story of Manfred, who sees his disabilities - including deafness - as challenges, not as barriers

Read more Last updated: 2019-01-08
Reading duration: 6 minutes

Manfred Wichmann, born in the early 1960s, is officially disabled, but this doesn’t stop him living a full and active life. He shares his inspirational approach.

Disability is clearly not an obstacle for you. Has it always been this way?

I’ve always led my life in a very self-determined manner, despite developing hearing difficulties and back problems as an adult. Sure, officially I am disabled but there are many people who don’t have a physical disability but instead suffer from fear or a lack of motivation, which can be equally disabling. Many people seem to live in a straitjacket. Personally, I find constraint much more limiting than hearing difficulties. In contrast, I am doing something. I’m not completely free of fear, but I say to myself: just give it a go.

Human beings have an absurd amount of potential. Disability can be seen as an opportunity. Disabled people have to find solutions and this is challenging – but it’s only through challenges that we can make progress.

Have you ever had doubts?

Of course I’ve had doubts. If you spend your life never having doubts, you are doing something wrong. We all make the wrong decisions sometimes. I think doubts belong to a person who leads a self-determined life.

How did you come to live the life you lead today?

One of the most important decisions I made was to start a carpentry apprenticeship after secondary school instead of studying. After that, together with my wife, I started a carpentry business. However, due to back problems from intervertebral disc damage, I had to stop working. Eventually we felt ready for a change and so we spent 2004 to 2012 in Africa, where my wife became an aid worker. We spent four years in Rwanda, then four years in Zambia. When we arrived in Africa, I was already very hard of hearing in both ears. I’d been gradually losing my hearing since I was 30, and since 2007 I have been completely deaf in my right ear. It became clear that I needed a cochlear implant (CI). The operation was performed in Germany and was extremely successful – I got my hearing back straight away. I flew back to Africa just a few days later and was on safari the next day. My hearing with the implant was so good that I had an implant in my left ear in 2009.

Where does your hearing loss come from?

I’ve been told that the cause is genetic – my father was also deaf in his right ear. It’s a sensorineural hearing loss, which means that the inner ear is affected (see ‘Types of hearing loss’, below).

Now you can swim and hear!

For a long time, people with hearing implants could only go swimming if they removed their audio processor, which of course meant that they couldn’t hear anything.

But now MED-EL has developed WaterWear, a protective reusable cover for audio processors, allowing people to swim – and hear – at the same time. It’s suitable for chlorinated, fresh and salt water and has been tested at a depth of four metres, so you can even snorkel too.

More information can be found at MED-EL.

If someone were to ask you for advice about implantation, what would you say?

I’d say that an implant is great. If you are very hard of hearing, you should consider it. With hearing aids, feedback is a big problem and sometimes the line between hearing and pain is very fine. Noisy children and dogs barking were always a horror. I hardly experience that at all with my CIs now.

Are you limited by the implants in any way?

It’s all relative. Compared with a hearing aid, everything is better. Compared with normal hearing, of course there are differences. When cycling, the wind noise is annoying and I can’t hear anything else. I often think that this needs to be improved. Apart from that, I absolutely love swimming. That’s when I hear nothing at all. However, sometimes that’s a disadvantage because there are paddle boats in front of our house in South Africa. And sharks. If a shark is sighted, there’s a siren, which I wouldn’t be able to hear. But there are hundreds of people in the water and I can follow their lead. (Editor’s note: MED-EL has developed a protective case for processors. see ‘Now you can swim and hear!’, above.)

Getting back to Africa, what’s your relationship with the continent?

I would describe it as intimate. But there’s more than one side to Africa. It’s a multi-faceted continent. We were in Rwanda for around four years and I felt very privileged to be able to live there. The genocide was 10 years before. I was touched by how the people dealt with it and didn’t suppress it, unlike in Germany, for example, after the Second World War. During the four years that we were in the country, there was real progress in Rwanda. In Zambia, by contrast, I didn’t feel welcome. It’s a rigid system and relatively useless to want to change something there.

When it comes to South Africa, I feel that I’ve always had a connection with the country. I get along with the people. In January 2015, we bought a house near Cape Town and when we’re there, we always have a lot of visitors.

You are very active. How do you relax?

Sport is very important in helping me to relax. I run but I’ve torn two ligaments and haven’t been able to do so lately. But for now, I have three bike races in South Africa coming up. Then there’s swimming; our house is located right by the sea. When we have visitors, I reserve the morning for myself and my sport, and afterwards I can take care of my friends.

Would you have the same lifestyle if you didn’t have hearing implants?

Yes, because I know how to help myself. I also have no problem with asking people for help. Before, when my phone rang, I would stop someone on the street and ask what the person on the other end of the line was saying. People are more helpful than you think. When I have a problem, I look for a solution. That´s my approach to life. It also means that if something goes wrong, I am to blame.

In a nutshell

Manfred Wichmann began to lose his hearing at the age of 30 and is deaf in both ears. But in 2007 and 2009, successful cochlear implant surgery allowed him to hear again.

Manfred lives with his wife in Hannover, Germany, and Muizenberg, South Africa. In the new millennium, they spent eight years in Rwanda and Zambia, where Wichmann supported his wife in her role as an aid worker.

He continues to do so today. Although he is unable to work due to back problems caused by intervertebral disc damage, he regularly plays sport, takes part in triathlons and is involved in the German Society for Nature Conservation. He firmly believes that disability should be seen as a challenge rather than a barrier.

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