All photos courtesy of Manuele Teofilo
Up until the age of 7, Manuele (or Manu) Teofilo was unaware that he was different.
At that time, he had been attending Auckland’s Carlson School for Cerebral Palsy (now known as Central Auckland Specialist School), and his teacher had just transitioned him to a mainstream primary school next door as she saw that he was capable of learning alongside his able-bodied students.
It was when his new schoolmates started giving him weird looks that he realized he wasn’t like most people. That marked the start of the 25-year-old’s journey to change the misconceptions society has about disabled people.
Growing Up with Cerebral Palsy
Manu was first hit with the reality of his disability when he was unable to join in a game of handball, a four-person game where a player bounces a tennis ball to each other. “I can’t hold a tennis ball, let alone throw one,” he said. It was an experience which saddened him, and he has had many other experiences like that since.
Cerebral palsy—the condition Manu has—is a life-long physical disability due to the damage of the developing brain. Symptoms of cerebral palsy can differ from person to person, but general signs are weaknesses in arms or legs, muscle tone that is either too stiff or too floppy, trouble with swallowing or speaking—to name a few.
For Manu, he has to rely on an electric wheelchair to move around as he is unable to walk unassisted, but there are times when he uses a walking frame to get around (only when there’s supervision close by). He cannot use his hands, so he needs help getting dressed and has to be fed. Speech is also challenging for him.
Living Life to the Fullest—in A Wheelchair
But despite the struggles he faces, Manu does not let it get in the way of him leading his life to the fullest.
Growing up alongside able-bodied peers helped him see that “God is still fair and faithful even if our situations aren’t”. So instead of dwelling on negative thoughts about what He can’t do, He’s determined to allow these challenges to shape him.
Earlier this year, Manu entered the Auckland Round the Bays, an 8.4km run that’s strenuous even for the more able-bodied, with a group of friends. It was Manu’s second Round the Bays event, and he was pleased he had been able to beat his own personal best at 1 hour and 37.59 minutes (the previous year was at 1 hour and 50.45 minutes). Training for this event had been a lot easier, he said. He had entered the event in a specialized COGY wheelchair, allowing him to pedal the wheelchair to get it going.
To Manu, there was no reason why he shouldn’t give the fun run a go as he enjoys a good challenge. Besides, “there is no distinction between an able-bodied person and a disabled one,” Manu said.
“Unless you’re Jesus, we all have sinned. We live in a broken and sinful world, and therefore we are all broken in some way. Just because someone’s brokenness is more visible doesn’t mean they don’t have hopes, dreams, and a purpose,” Manu said.
Besides his physical achievements, Manu also holds a bachelor’s degree in human services from the University of Auckland, and works as a social media coordinator with Elevate Christian Disability Trust—a New Zealand organization committed to empowering people with disabilities to live their full potential in Christ.
Manu’s role requires him to research and create content for social media, as well as put together Facebook posts for the organization. It’s Manu’s first job out of university, and he hopes it’ll give him a better understanding of what it’s like to be an employee.
During his spare time, he volunteers his writing skills with Christian Today New Zealand (CTNZ). Writing allows Manu to “share his thoughts in a way that people understand” as not everyone is able to understand him when he speaks. His dedication and commitment to writing won him the Chairman’s Award at the Christian Today’s Young Adults’ Conference in August last year
Manu sees writing as a way to “glorify God and encourage His church”, and it’s also a skill he is looking to grow so he can encourage people through the written word.
When he’s not writing, he can be found hanging out with his friends, exercising, or tucking into his favorite beef meal.
“Every Significant Thing That Happened Is A Miracle”
Looking back on the ways God has provided for Manu and his family fills his heart with gratitude.
God’s intervention first came in the form of his grandfather, who insisted the Teofilos’ moved to Auckland, New Zealand, from the Polynesian Islands of Samoa, with their three-year-old son. His grandfather knew Manu had a better chance of flourishing under New Zealand’s healthcare system.
The electric wheelchair provided by the New Zealand government gives Manu a bit of freedom to move around, completing his daily tasks. The family was also later provided with a mobility van, which according to Manu, came at the “perfect time” when he was getting busier attending youth meetings and camps.
But it’s not just the health benefits that came with the family’s move to New Zealand. God had also put in place people who played a part in bringing Manu to faith. The first was a teacher who introduced Manu to a Christian camp for disabled children when he was 10. Having grown up in a Catholic home, Manu had always known God, but didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. This changed when his prayer request for strength in his legs was answered at the camp, leading Manu to give his life to Jesus.
God has yet to fully heal him, but that doesn’t mean He isn’t healing him, Manu says. But if complete healing never comes, Scripture has taught Manu that everything on earth is temporal (2 Corinthians 4:18). It’s this hope that allows Manu to live with his earthly impairment, knowing “it won’t be forever”.
Another teacher also played an integral part in helping Manu settle into church life. When she learned he was unable to attend church as his family didn’t have a suitable vehicle (this was before he was given a mobility van), she rallied her church community to take turns in ferrying Manu to church every Sunday.
As he reflects on how God has moved in every area of his life, right down to its smallest detail, Manu said: “Every significant thing that happened in my life is a miracle.”
A Life of Abundance in Jesus
A firm believer that Jesus has come so we may have life and life abundantly (John 10:10), Manu has a busy year planned: “[Scripture] motivates me to live an extraordinary life not defined by what I can or cannot do. This verse teaches that I can only live a great life on earth and in eternity if I depend on Jesus.”
Among the items on his to-do list include continuing to learn and grow in his role as a social media coordinator with Elevate Christian Disability Trust, and working on a business idea on the side.
But above all, he hopes to continue to be a voice for the disabled, showing people that they, too, desire to contribute back to their community, and can achieve their goals and dreams despite their physical shortcomings.
When asked how society can do better at engaging the disabled in open conversations, Manu said: “Don’t assume what kind of life someone lives by their outward appearances. Make time to have conversations with people. Get to know them, even if they’re in a wheelchair, have a guide dog [with them] or talk funny.”
Watch Manu share his story here:
Video courtesy of Elevate Christian Disability Trust, republished with permission.