Success against the odds for disabled NMMU graduate and service dog

APRIL 14, 2016

When Heinrich Williams crosses the stage this graduation, his companion and study buddy Viking, donned in full graduation attire, will as usual be right by his side.

Viking, the four-year old Golden Retriever mix, attended all Heinrich’s lectures and exams as a service dog, assisting Heinrich in achieving his NDip Industrial Engineering. 

“He deserves to graduate with me, he was present in all my classes,” said Heinrich, 45.

Both Heinrich and Viking’s graduation attire were custom made by Croft, Magill & Watson.

Sadly Heinrich was not always paralysed and has learnt to adapt to life in a wheelchair. 

In 2010, while working as a process engineer in China, Heinrich contracted a bacterial infection which resulted in an abscess pressing up against his spinal cord. The pressure damaged his spinal cord and left him paralysed from the neck down, a C6 quadriplegic.

In 2013 after sitting at home, bored, unemployed and frustrated, Heinrich took a friend’s advice and registered to study.

“Returning to a classroom after 20 years was daunting, I was older and disabled”.

Heinrich is a qualified aircraft electrician and spent 12 years working for the air force.  

Being disabled was a new challenge, an adjustment.

“The first year was the hardest but my experience at NMMU has been great. Young, old and across all races, Viking and I were accepted and able to mingle very well.”  

Heinrich waited two years to receive his service dog from the SA Guide Dog Association, the non-profit organisation that matches the dog to the owner’s lifestyle and personality.

The association covers all expenses which includes a trainer who trains the dog in its working environment for a period of three weeks.

Viking is trained to open and close doors, pick up objects, assist Heinrich with getting dressed, alert somebody if Heinrich is in need and he can even press the panic button for the alarm.

“Viking is not an animal. He is an extension of me, he is my arms and legs”.

Heinrich is also supported by his wife who is his caregiver. 

“I worked hard many long nights, but my wife is extremely encouraging and positive”.

Heinrich who is currently completing his BTech Industrial Engineering praises NMMU’s Industrial Engineering department for all the support he receives.

“Dr Ann Lourens and the team go out of their way to assist and accommodate us,” he said.

Through NMMU’s Innovation Office Heinrich is also working with eNtsa and Clinical Care Sciences, thinking up ways to improve the lives of disabled people, and his first two quad products, namely the Qbell™ and Qpark are currently being developed.

Qbell™: Easy call button is an alternative nurse-call button suitable for use by patients with reduced or no hand/arm function. It is being market tested at Life St George’s Hospital and Netcare Greenacres Hospital. Qbell™, conceptualised by Heinrich and built by eNtsa, is a simple press device that enables patients to get the attention of health care staff without the frustration caused by trying to press a small button on conventional devices.

The Qpark: Parking access system prevents able-bodied motorists from unlawfully using disabled parking spaces and it was conceptualised by Heinrich. This reserved parking system is access controlled through the use of GPS communication and uses a smart phone’s position to automatically open a motorised barrier.

The project received funding from the Technology Innovation Agency’s Seed Fund programme to develop a prototype that will be tested on NMMU’s North Campus before moving the prototype to “the real world”.

Image: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University graduate Heinrich Williams and his service dog, Viking, who has helped him achieve his NDip Industrial Engineering.