I have travelled the world as an athlete, keynote speaker and campaigner for disability rights.
Some would say I’ve achieved a lot for a woman whose father was told he should kill me because I was disabled.
As the world comes together to celebrate International Women’s Day, we must work harder than ever to build a truly inclusive movement. Disabled women and girls are still some of the most marginalised and forgotten people on the planet. It is critical that feminist movements include our voices too. Otherwise this is not a woman’s movement, it is a movement for non-disabled women only.
I was born a healthy child in rural Kenya.
But when I was 2, I got polio and it left me paralysed from the waist down. The local witch doctor said I had been struck by ‘black magic’. My community thought I was cursed. They would call me ‘snake’ because I had to crawl along the floor in order to move around. They said I should be left to die. They wanted to burn our house down. We had to leave our village because it was no longer safe for me and my family.
The stigma I experienced was devastating.
It took everything away from me. I hated who I was. And when you are broken inside - when your sense of self, and your self-worth are broken - it leaves you more disabled in your mind than any physical impairment can.
If it wasn’t for my father telling me I had a special place in this life, I wouldn’t be here now. I now believe nothing disables me more than staying silent on the things that impact me. That’s why I am so passionate about using my voice to amplify the voices of other disabled women.
Disability stigma is present in every society.
But in parts of Africa and Asia it can be particularly oppressive. In the village where I grew up, there was nothing to explain the causes of my impairment to my community. It is within this void of understanding, that dangerous misconceptions about disability can form. Disabled people are often considered weak, worthless and in some cases subhuman. Disabled women are doubly discriminated against for both their gender and their disability. Unfortunately, too many services that are meant to protect women, do not take into account the unique dangers and challenges faced by disabled women.
- How does a woman with a hearing impairment hear the warning sounds of an approaching attacker?
- How does a woman with a visual impairment know where to run for protection?
ADD International's research into violence against disabled women and girls in Tanzania exposed some shocking realities.
- 9 out of 10 respondents had experienced abuse - not just from men but also from other able-bodied women, as well as those who should be there to protect them, such as carers or spiritual leaders.
- 9 out of 10 women and girls with intellectual disabilities had been sexually abused, often frequently, without intervention from family or community.
When I hear these stories, I think: that so easily could have been me. I am only where I am today because I had people who believed in me. These women have been left on their own. Society has discarded them. That is why it is so important to me, that I work to amplify their voices.
Even here in Britain, disabled women are invisible.
In 2018 I was forced to wet myself on a public train because there was no accessible toilet. I chose to speak out about it, to take on the transport system and try to create change. But every time I spoke about it, I felt humiliated all over again.
I got so many emails from disabled people who had left their jobs, stopped going to school, stopped socialising because they had also wet themselves and their shame reduced their lives to barely leaving the house. Their stories broke my heart. Disabled people are being robbed of their dignity.
We don’t want sympathy, we don’t want charity. We want opportunities and we want our rights.
That’s why I am asking this new wave of feminism to carry us with them.
At your meetings make sure there are disabled women in the room, on your panels, in your leadership teams and that their stories are being shared. Whilst able-bodied women are talking about the pay gap, remember that disabled women are still struggling to access basic things, like an education, sexual health, sanitary towels, or even an accessible toilet.
To me diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance. I want to dance.