After being diagnosed with a severe learning disability and almost going blind, Willemien du Toit went on to obtain a Law qualification from the University of Oxford. She is now using her testimony to motivate women and children around the world.
“Just 2 weeks before I was born, my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. In those days the medics had no way of knowing or telling that an infant may be suffocating from the grips of an umbilical cord. I was born through natural birth which caused the umbilical cord to grip even tighter. As a result, I was born “black” due to severe oxygen deprivation and I was left with some serious scars to my academic abilities. The extent of the damage was only discovered when I started school and they found that I couldn’t read,” says Willemien.
She adds that her teachers told her parents there was “no hope at all for me finishing school and making something of my life.” But Willemien says her parents pushed her and instilled hope in her that she could achieve anything in life.
“I never understood why my mom and dad had to be so hard on me, always pushing. My dad used to say, ‘your best is just not good enough – do better’. I just thought they didn’t love me. I thought they were setting me up for failure because they always expected the impossible from me,” says Willemien.
Because of her parents’ support and encouragement, Willemien went on to finish school.
“From a very young age, I always wanted to become a lawyer. It was my ultimate dream to say: ‘I am a lawyer’. But it never crossed my mind that I need to be academically strong – I needed to be able to read and write, two skills I really did not have – I could only do the very basic. I flunked almost every subject but by some miracle, I never flunked a year, and scraped through by the skin of my teeth. And eventually in 1988, I finished and passed my matric – my marks were not worth the paper they were printed on, but I made it. Needless to say, I never made it to university to study law. I became a travel agent instead,” says Willemien.
Although she loved her job, Willemien says she “could never shake this intense desire to become a lawyer. No matter how brilliant I was at being a travel agent, no matter how loved I was in the industry and by my clients, it was simply not good enough for me. No matter how wonderful my job was – it was not my dream.”
After moving to the UK with her husband and having two children, Willemien says her husband encouraged her to pursue her dream.
“He knew how strong my desire still burned in my heart. He encouraged me to enrol into university and study law.”
Willemien managed to get an interview at one of the Universities in the UK and was also asked to do a test.
“When the professor gave me my results, he leaned back in his chair, with his legs stretched out before him with a very serious look on his face. He looked me straight in the eye and said: ‘You are one very disabled lady – go home and look after your children – you will never make school, let alone law school.’ He told me that I am extremely dyslexic and dyspraxic and that there is no way I would ever be able to cope with the academic demands of a university,” says Willemien.
However, when she got home and told her husband the news, he told her “If you believe what this guy is telling you then you are not the woman I thought you are”. This pushed Willemien to go back to the professor and ask for a second chance.
“The professor laughed and said ‘of course – if you have the money to waste you can have a term straight into law school – if you pass you can stay if you fail you are out.’ Having everything (most of all, my husband’s respect) to lose I grabbed this opportunity. And up and until my last 6 months everything went well,” says Willemien.
But then something terrible happened – Willemien was diagnosed with tumours on both her macular (the central focus part of one’s eye) and was told she was going to be blind in 6 weeks.
She says she went on to pray and asked for a miracle. “A few days later I went to the specialists again. They took more photos of my eyes and saw that the black tumours were now transparent, and the possibility of blindness was very slim if at all.”
Willemien went on to complete her studies.
“Against all odds, I completed my full LLB Hons degree in law (Bachelor of Laws) within 2 years. I then received a scholarship to do a post-graduate diploma in Law at the University of Oxford which I completed within a year and 5 distinctions,” says the proud Willemien.
“I was born with a severely scarred brain. There was absolutely no hope for me to achieve much in life, but my parents recognised something in me no one else was willing to see. When I thought they were setting me up for failure, they created a mindset in me that the impossible is possible depending on where your focus is. My disability taught me that nothing is impossible, there is always a way. Boxes are for lazy people. I do not fit into a box and never want to fit into one,” she concludes.
Willemien is now a motivational speaker who gets invited all over the world. She is also a business rehabilitation consultant, helping businesses that struggle.