Yusuf Talia: Breaking Barriers!

Overcoming Disability
By Tasneem Moolla
Freelance Writer- South Africa

Yusuf Talia
Talia was born in1989 in the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Yusuf has one younger brother. His father, Nazir is an accountant and his mother is a businesswoman. In spite of the challenges of having a physical disability, Yusuf Talia managed to live a normal life, and yet be productive to his society.

Confined to a Wheelchair

At the age of five, Talia was diagnosed with a disease that weakened his muscles affecting his legs and arms. As time passed he became weaker. He stopped walking at the age of ten, and has been bound to a wheelchair ever since. Talia is the only one in his family with this type of condition, and is currently not undergoing any treatment for it.

Talia's parents are very thankful to Almighty Allah for the will and acceptance of their son's disability.

“They never treated me any differently from my brother, as they punish and praise me as they do him,” said Talia.

Talia's parents sent him to a mainstream school, and supported him in every way they could. They were a great pillar of strength to him and taught him that he could do everything just as any other normal person, except in a different way. They adapted to a life which accommodates each stage of Talia's progressive condition.

“I often hear them say that parents should never be rigid in their ways, and should adapt to each situation, as it arises and know from the bottom of your heart that Almighty Allah will never abandon you. Trials and difficulties only make you stronger and they have discovered that through adversity comes opportunity,” added Talia.

Integration into Society

Talia attended the Johannesburg Muslim School, and had a fulfilling and enjoyable school life. He had many friends, and loved interacting with them on every level. He always attended excursions and sporting activities, and was never left out from school functions.

He took part in social programs, such as blanket collections, the soup kitchen and many other community projects at school. He was also an active member of the Biology Society in high school. He participated in various speech contests, and excelled in them, as he often received the first or second prize.

Talia had a normal childhood, as he went to a mainstream school like everyone else. At an early age he realized that he was not as physically strong as the other children. His mother told the teachers to explain to the class that people have different strengths and weaknesses, and that Talia has physical disabilities.

“Whenever I fell or needed any help, I was never ridiculed, instead my friends were ever helpful”, he reminisces.

At the age of ten, Talia started using his first, manual wheelchair. When his friends saw it for the first time, they exclaimed, “Hey Yusuf, you’ve got wheels”. His arms were too weak for him to move himself, and so his friends used to take turns to move him around the school and playground. A year later, his parents bought him a motorized wheelchair, which gave him freedom of movement, and independence, which he absolutely loved.


Talia is looking forward to completing his BA Science degree.  At first he was planning to study medicine, but he was realistic about his physical limitations, and decided that he would study accounting, because he would be able to succeed in this field, despite his condition.

He was elected as the vice president of the Students Representative Council (SRC) at the university.

The academics, social lifestyle, diversity of students, and the challenges of the SRC keep me motivated to go to campus each day," said Talia.

The challenges that Yusuf faces at campus helps him to learn how to balance between his studies, social life, SRC duties and other projects that he is involved  in.

“Opening and closing textbooks and taking down notes are challenging for me; therefore I use e-textbooks for my studies, and I don’t take any notes, I just remember the lectures and read up later on. Sometimes venues are not accessible, and then I have to miss a meeting. When we had power-cuts, I once got stuck on the third floor; luckily I was not in the lift at the time. I had to wait for over 4 hours before I could go home, but some of my friends stayed with me so it wasn’t too bad”, he said.

Yusuf has been involved in many things over the years, and received various awards, such as, the Golden Key, which is a social award on campus for the high achievers in 2007. SRC skills and entrepreneurship officer (2008), SRC vice president (2009), and a leadership course diploma (2009).

One of the most recent activities, which Yusuf was involved in, was a Special Needs Awareness campaign, which was his brainchild. He attended a special needs session, where he saw the boys from a madressah (school) for the blind read in Braille, which touched him. He discussed this issue with his parents stressing on the point of raising the levels of awareness regarding special needs in the Muslim community.

His parents supported his idea and started to prepare for an awareness campaign. They started by publishing a magazine called ‘Beyond Barriers’.

“The magazine was well received by the community, and the readers found it informative and inspiring. We highlighted the fact that despite the many challenges people face, they can achieve success. Actually, the special needs community don’t need pity, but they want a better understanding and support to achieve their goals”, said Talia.

On October the 4th 2009 the Special Needs Awareness campaign was held, and six special needs madressahs participated, who have various types of special needs, such as, Cerebral Palsy, Down syndrome, Fragile X, Autism, etc. As for the blind individuals, they read to the audience in Braille. They proved that despite their many challenges, they can learn du`aa’ (supplications), Qur'an, salat (prayers), and many other aspects of Islam.

They had objectives that they wanted to accomplish.

·         Firstly, to raise awareness about the issue of special needs.

·         Secondly, they wanted the special needs community to connect with each other, and know that they are not alone in this life.

·         Thirdly, to honor the special needs participants through giving each one a medal after their event.

·         Finally, to encourage each town/city to have a special needs madressah class in a mainstream madressah.

"We don’t want the children to be taught in isolation. Instead, we want to encourage integration and interaction for the disabled in the society,” added Talia.

 Positive Outcome

The audience was overwhelmed with emotions. Some of them were not just crying, they were sobbing. Everyone agreed that they just saw special needs from a different perspective. They had read about it, but witnessing it had a completely different impact on them. Most of them also admitted that they do not value what they have, and often winge for the most mundane things.

 “Actually, the smiles on their faces and happiness in their eyes can describe the outcome of the campaign," mentioned Talia.

Through this initiative, a few special needs madressah classes have already opened after the campaign and other new classes will open by next year.

“I am happy to say that ‘Beyond Barriers’ has now even gone beyond borders! Copies of the magazine have gone to Botswana, Iran, Indonesia and even Australia," said Talia.

All in All!

Talia is an incredibly optimistic individual, a person, who has excelled in many facets of his life despite his physical limitations. He finds inspiration in people, who are positive, and those that make a difference to other people’s lives. He is active in his community and at campus. Talia is an exemplary student and a model friend. He represents a motivational role model to ordinary people like us, proving that nothing is impossible. Truly, he is an asset to his community and an important part of many people’s lives.

“Set goals for yourself. Educate yourself. Don’t wait for others to do things for you. Be proactive and innovative and find joy in what you do. Every day is important, so live life to the fullest," said Talia.



Tasneem Moolla is studying tourism management at the University of South Africa. She has a great interest in reading and writing. She is also interested in learning about various cultures and people's lifestyles all over the world. She is a part-time, voluntary nasheed singer who performs at various Islamic functions.

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