Elena – “an ordinary young girl trying not to create barriers for herself”

Read her emotional letter, specially written for UNICEF's “With eyes open for everyone” campaign

Elena Koleva
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06 November 2019

Hello everyone!

My name is Elena and I'm 24 years old. I would like to tell you the story of one little girl ... Like any story, this one has a moral or at least ... a message. What each of you will make of it, however, depends on you. Get comfortable with a cup of coffee or a cup full of interest ... 😊 Enjoy the reading!

On 25 of January 1995, a tiny, premature baby girl was born in the city of Varna, two months before her mother’s due date. Pretty much as soon as she was born the doctors put her in an incubator and frightened her happy parents that their child ... would not enjoy a long life ... Their baby was too small to survive ... Her mother and father gave her the name Elena. The name has magical power over its holder. Well, my mom and dad gave me a name that in Greek means “torch, fire”. I'm not very fiery, but I learned to fight. Let me tell you what happened to little Elena ....

When I was one year and six months old, I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy — a neurological condition that blocked my nerves which would allow me to walk independently.

They frightened my parents that I would never be able to walk ... And my parents started daily trainings and therapy. The first stop on my journey as a person that had yet to develop was the Centre for Children with Special Needs “Karin Dom”, founded in 1996. It’s been a long time since I have last been there, but I will never forget how it felt: it felt like going home. It was not about me having a problem or not. The therapy was somehow left in the background. It was there that I met one person who was very important to me – my physiotherapist. In addition to being my mentor and assistant, over the years she has become a trusted friend for me. Somebody to whom I owe both my skills and mobility, and my strong personality. Yes, it’s true, I'm not like all of you – dashing and literally running around. Yes, it's true, I'm not walking all by myself, but with a mobility aid and so what? I too am a person with my dreams, wishes and goals, having learned to exceed my limits.

I would lie to myself, let alone to all of you, if I said that I have never wondered what it would be like to have no physical problem.  Sometimes I am still getting used to it. But the fact is that in my whole life this will be a part of me and I cannot change that.

So, I try to take the best it can give me. Some of you will probably wonder what I mean. What could be good about being physically dependent? I'm not physically dependent on anyone. I do absolutely everything by myself.

One of the most important life lessons I learned was precisely due to my situation: being able to select the right people. Everyone thinks differently and accepts things in their own way, it is normal. But many people are quick to judge before they’ve got to know you. It’s too often that I get labelled prematurely. Later, when I mention that I have been ballroom dancing for years, even if it’s just a hobby, I get stared at:

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“But you… how?” I smile and wink, “Just like that, with a desire and strong will!” Yes, you read that correctly. I'm a dancer. Not a perfect one, of course, but it's a hobby that always gives me a lot of energy!

There is some truth in what my friends and relatives say about me. They say that I am a creative person. If you ask me, I'm passionate about languages. I used to speak Polish, but now I am focused mainly on German. I graduated from the First language school with German in 2014. Then I started a BA programme in German Philology at the University of Vienna, but three years later I realized that philology was not my specialty, no matter how much I loved writing. It made me become straightforward, while I'm a rather chaotic and emotional person. Incompatible a bit, right? I love Vienna a lot and I appreciate the time I spent there for the first time I left home, took my life in my own hands, realized that I could rely on myself. I had my reasons for coming back to Bulgaria, and so far, I do not regret that. I am currently working as a customer service consultant with German and I hope the little break will help me choose properly what I want to study now.

Sounds totally normal, and it is, right? Why did I tell you all this? Go back to the beginning of my story. I mentioned that it has a message ... I am not somebody who seeks pity, on the contrary, I hate to be pitied! I have always insisted and continue to do so – I am lucky to live a normal life with loving parents and friends who value me for who I am. I do not deny that I am a person with specific needs, but what I can’t accept is the fact that we are not always considered equal to the others. More and more work is done for proper integration, for greater accessibility. There has been some improvement – that I can’t deny. However, I believe that

we – the people with some kind of “disability” are also strong enough and brave to be equal to everyone.

Where are the roots of the main problem? In the perception of the individual. Way too often I will run against people who, hearing part of my story, will say, “Oh, well done, you've achieved so much!” It's not much, it's normal for everyone. Each of you has been in a mainstream school, a high school, a state and elite university, or is working, right? Then why should it be different for me or other people like me?

This is where the barrier is. The barrier is in people's mind.

It is not normal, nor is it right to hide or hear that people can feel shame just for being friends with us. However, ... probably there are such people. And how do I handle something like that? It’s not easy. And it’s also not every day that I have the strength to break the barriers of those around me to make them accept me, but I do it. To encourage them to see me as the normal person that I am. Still, whatever the situation, it is up to us and our horizons to accept it and deal with it!

We are the ones to decide what the course of our lives will be. I am who I am an ordinary young girl trying not to create barriers for myself. Now I'm wondering ... can you break yours?!

Best regards,

Elena Koleva