Another milestone reached for grad with cerebral palsy 

Wits student with a motor disability successfully completes her degree despite odds being stacked against her 

At 18-month-old, Holly Heinzelmann was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after her parents realised that she was not achieving the milestones that most children her age were reaching. 

The diagnosis made it difficult for her to navigate life in a world that still has barriers that inhibit disabled people to thrive. However, Heinzelmann was determined to obtain a university degree, despite the challenges she faced. 

In April, she achieved her goal by obtaining her degree, majoring in genetics and developmental biology as well as ecology and conservation. “In general, graduating is a huge achievement for anyone, but specifically for disabled people,” she explained to Wits Vuvuzela. 

Cerebral Palsy is an umbrella term which refers to a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. Heinzelmann’s affected areas are her muscle tone in her legs, and maintaining balance, as a result, she is unable to walk without aid or a walking frame. To get around — because campus is big — she used a mobility scooter.  

Heinzelmann’s troubles would however not end there. After battling covid-19 in 2020, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2021. This added to the list of things she had to take into consideration when coming into campus daily, as she would have to ensure that she takes her insulin and has snacks on her to keep her blood sugar levels stable throughout the day.  

Although she is soft-spoken and meek in her demeanour, when it came to taking on the extra challenge she was faced with, Heinzelmann did it fiercely and relentlessly by continuing to show up and do the work that was required of her.    

Her mother, Meredith Heinzelmann told Wits Vuvuzela that Disability Rights Unit (DRU) helped her daughter navigate the university environment. “DRU is fantastic, and they do a fantastic job, they’ve certainly contributed to a very positive university experience for her [Holly], but there are still issues that are beyond their control like lifts not working”.  

Holly Heinzelmann and her parents, Carl and Meredith Heinzelmann the day of her graduation at the Disability Rights Unit office.
Photo: Supplied/Holly Heinzelmann

The DRU is a support unit at Wits that helps students with various disabilities. They do this by creating awareness around disabilities, making campus more accessible to these students and helping them receive reasonable accommodation.  

Heinzelmann said that the unit allowed her to keep her mobile scooter in their offices overnight to charge. This greatly helped her as it would have been too difficult for her to transport her scooter to and from campus daily.  

“If a lift stopped working and I couldn’t get to a lecture and needed to change my lecture venue I would just go to the DRU. They would assist in the engagement with the lecturers and course administration,” Heinzelmann added.  

She said the unit also assisted her to get extra time when writing exams, as the muscle tone in the lower half of her body would cause her to slouch if she sat for too long. This would affect her writing speed. 

Iman Cakirerk, a fellow Witsie and friend of Heinzelmann said that she would express her frustration about the lack of accessibility in certain labs on campus, but she always found a way to get around them.  

Heinzelmann will continue her postgraduate degree in law at Wits, and she encouraged people living with disabilities to also consider studying despite how hard it might be. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Graduate and cerebral palsy warrior Holly Heinzelmann (21) standing in front of the DRU’s offices on the day of her graduation.
Photo: Supplied/Holly Heinzelmann