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Struggle and perseverance win through for BSc graduate

Reprinted University of Canterbury Chronicle -- 23/03/07

Six years ago, a serious illness left Neelusha Memon in a coma for four months, without speech, mobility or most of her eyesight.

Fast forward to last December and Neelu was crossing the stage at the Christchurch Town Hall to receive her Bachelor of Science degree, with a smile on her face stretching from ear to ear.

Neelu celebrates her graduation day with her parents, Farida Memon (International Office) and Professor Ali Memon (Lincoln University)
Neelu celebrates her graduation day with her parents, Farida Memon (International Office) and Professor Ali Memon (Lincoln University)

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The 22-year-old had battled through years of "hellish" rehabilitation and had to persevere with her studies and fight her way through many obstacles on her path to graduation.

In 2000 as a result of a minor virus Neelu contracted acute disseminated encephalomyelitis. The resulting inflammation in her brain and spinal chord left her with only 40% vision in each eye (which makes her legally blind) and saw her having to relearn how to walk, talk, swallow and use her hands.

"Rehabbing was hell. It's not a process I would ever want to go through again. It required every ounce of my strength. You don't get through it if you're not 100 million per cent determined."

Neelu faced her academic goals with the same dogged determination she tackled her physical rehabilitation.

"I had such difficulty reading. When I started I could only read a sentence at a time and my eyes would be tired. But I persevered and kept pushing my eyes."

She said she faced major challenges almost daily during her university studies towards a double major in physiology and geography. Lecturers pointing to PowerPoint presentations during classes which she couldn't read, and accessing library books for assignments both provided frustrations but fortunately she had a great support network to help her over such hurdles.

"I had a lot of help. This degree has not been just my work. I've had help from the Foundation of the Blind, tutors, amazing lecturers and even just friends and PhD students in different departments who have helped me with my material. And Disability Support Services at UC - Gill Fowler and her team - were fantastic. I wouldn't have got through my degree without Gill. I owe her half my degree."

Neelu is now working as a project officer at Community and Public Health, a division of the Canterbury District Health Board. When not behind her desk, she can be found on the back seat of a tandem bicycle pedalling her way towards realising another dream.

In 2005 during the third year of her degree, Neelu, inspired by watching Sarah Ulmer's golden performance at the Athens Olympics, took up cycling. Neelu is able to cycle as a tandem rider with a sighted pilot and, along with two-time New Zealand road race champion Annalissa Farrell, has her sights set on representing New Zealand at the 2008 Paralympiad in Beijing.

Neelu said she has plenty of advice and words of encouragement to share with students working their way through a degree.

"Don't look at anything as a barrier. Fight through it. University isn't meant to be easy and sure it can be harder for people with disabilities but you've just got to have the drive to keep thinking about the end goal."

Editor's comment
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