Miss Wheelchair World runner-up Lebohang Monyatson breaks the mould
She paid her own way to get to Poland so she could take part in the Miss Wheelchair pageant – and was named first princess!
TRENDY hair, perfectly straight teeth, high cheekbones – it’s not hard to see why she was named first princess in a global beauty pageant or why she’s a sought-after model. But Lebohang Monyatsi is much more than a pretty face: she also has a degree in psychology and is an accomplished athlete.
But there’s one other thing that sets her apart from the pack – the wheelchair parked in the corner of the room while she sits chatting to us on the couch.
The stunning 31-year-old has been disabled since the age of three but she’s never allowed her disability to define her, she says.
“So if you think I have more willpower than most able-bodied people it’s because I don’t see a difference between able-bodied people and me.”
Lebohang is still buzzing from the excitement of being named first princess in the first Miss Wheelchair World pageant held in Warsaw, Poland, in October.
Organised by the NGO Only One Foundation, the pageant aims to change the image of women in wheelchairs and to demonstrate that disabilities are not limitations.
“Warsaw was great,” she says. “The people were very welcoming and the infrastructure of the city made such an impression on me.
“It’s very wheelchair-friendly and you can get around without people helping you. The transport system is also geared toward people with disabilities.”
Although Lebohang is thrilled by the outcome of the trip it came with a price tag.
“The pageant sponsored accommodation, food and insurance – the only thing they didn’t sponsor was travelling fare.” So Lebohang used her savings to fund her travels – which she was happy to do, she adds, although she quickly realised she’d need some help.
“I had enough money saved to get to Poland but there was no way I was going without Thandi Ntseane, who is my helper. I wrote to the office of the president to request help with funds as well as to the social development ministry and the National Council for Persons with Physical Disabilities. They all declined my request.
“I had to take a R15 000 loan and even that wasn’t enough. It was only after an interview on Power FM that I got assistance. I told my story on radio and a listener by the name of Mfundo Nongcula reached out and helped to fund the rest of the trip.”
LEBOHANG, who was born in Vryburg in the North West, developed polio at the age of three. The virus, which causes paralysis in children, is easily preventable with a vaccine but Lebohang wasn’t immunised against the disease as a baby.
“I don’t hold a grudge against my family for not immunising me,” she says. “It was a lack of knowledge.”
Growing up with a disability wasn’t easy and she couldn’t keep up with the other kids, she recalls.
“Sometimes those kids would tease me and call me segole ( handicapped) but the biggest challenge I went through was the inability to attend a mainstream school because they don’t accommodate people with disabilities.”
Still, she believes there is some higher purpose to it all. “Perhaps the Lord decided I was the one He was going to use
to make a change for the disabled. In the book of Jeremiah he says, ‘I know the plans I have for you – plans to make you prosper’.”
Being disabled wasn’t the only hardship she faced growing up. She lost her mom at age nine but, tough as that was, her grandmother, Elizabeth Monyatsi (80), stepped into the role of mother and has been Lebohang’s rock ever since.
“Throughout this journey I have had strong support from family and friends, but especially from my grandmother.”
Lebohang battled with her health throughout early childhood and was 11 years old when she was able to attend school for the first time. Her gogo sent her to Tlamelang Special School in Gelukspan near Mahikeng.
“I started late, but the great thing about Tlamelang is that we all understood each other because we were all disabled,” she says.
At school she took a keen interest in sport, particularly wheelchair basketball, and fell in love with the idea of becoming a model.
“While growing up I realised there was no one who looks like me in showbiz and the media industry,” she says.
“That’s when I told myself I have to get out of my comfort zone and be an inspiration to other people who are facing the same challenges in the hope they’d follow and maybe even surpass me.”
Lebohang aced her matric exams and went on to study psychology at NorthWest University, where she continued to play wheelchair basketball – so successfully she represented South Africa in Mexico in the qualifying rounds of the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games.
“I was named the best shooter,” she says proudly. Unfortunately the team didn’t make it all the way to the Paralympics but Lebohang received a taste of the world out there.
Back home she renewed her interest in modelling and appeared on the runway in her wheelchair at Soweto Fashion Week this year.
“I aspire to do the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in future,” she tells us.
MAKING the finals of Miss Wheelchair World was a huge deal for her, she says. “I had been following the Miss Wheelchair World Facebook page when I saw that they were recruiting people to enter Miss Wheelchair World 2017 and I applied.”
The pageant was previously Miss Poland Wheelchair until the organisers decided to take it global.
In August she received an email inviting her to take part in the pageant.
“I couldn’t believe it. I told Thandi this was an opportunity for me to change the image of people with disabilities.
“I entered because I’ve always wanted to be a model but I couldn’t because there are no opportunities for persons with disabilities in the modelling industry. To be announced first runner-up was a big deal for me.”
As first princess she is expected to market the pageant and do charity work. “You need to make a change in your part of the world, which is what I’m about.”
Lebohang doesn’t talk much about her private life but she lets slip that marriage might not be far off.
“I’m currently dating and I foresee having a family,” she says.
And what of the future? “I’ll be starting the pageant Miss Wheelchair South Africa,” she says.
“I have my work cut out to raise awareness regarding people with disabilities. In South Africa, people with disabilities face a lot of challenges.
“My position affords me a sphere of influence. Women in wheelchairs should not be judged solely by this fact.”
Amen to that.
‘Perhaps the Lord decided I was the one He was going to use to make a change for the disabled’
ABOVE: Lebohang Monyatsi was named first princess at the Miss Wheelchair World 2017 pageant in Poland last month. BELOW: She contracted polio at the age of three and it left her paralysed. BELOW RIGHT: Lebohang enjoys taking part in sport and loves spending time outdoors.