International Day for Persons with Disabilities: The power of finding your voice

Maria Alexandrova advises on the inclusive education

Мария Александрова
Мария Александрова и нейната най-дора приятелка са в училище заедно
UNICEF/UN0338740/Nabrdalik VIl
03 December 2019

Maria Alexandrova is a 18-year-old student from Vratsa, Bulgaria. In 2018, she successfully challenged the University of Cambridge to adapt its Advanced English examination to her specific needs, becoming the first person with cerebral palsy in Bulgaria to ever try and successfully take the exam.

She is marking the International Day of Persons with Disabilities advocating for other people in her condition to have better access to quality education and employability.

You can read more about her story here.

Usually when people come across a disabled person in a school or public environment, they’re shocked to see us there. More often than not, it’s expected from us to have an inspirational story of how we got to where we are.

Well, I’m here to tell you that a majority of us are just like you – trying to live our best lives with what we’ve been given.

Growing up it was never a question whether I would even go to school or not. I was curious and inquisitive, and it was something I was looking forward to.

First grade was easy because I’d already learned to read the year prior, but then second grade rolled around, and I had to try and keep up with the tempo of my classmates.

When my primary school teacher found out I owned a computer, she had the brilliant idea of me using it as a tool to type the information out, thus temporarily solving my speed issue.

Tips on how students with disabilities can communicate with their teachers:

👨‍🏫 Explain what your condition is and how it affects your education 
📢 Be empathetic, but stand your ground and tell them what you need 
❓ Be willing to answer questions 
🙋 Don't hesitate to ask for help

Мария Александрова и нейната най-дора приятелка са в училище заедно
UNICEF/UN0338740/Nabrdalik VIl

"What I’m trying to convey with this story is that we can overcome a lot of the hurdles we face when it comes to education with a little creativity and desire to do so."

As time went on, however, the given tasks became more time consuming to solve on a computer, rather than writing them out by hand. That’s when I realised something had to change.

Unfortunately, during that period of time my teachers became much more unwilling to help me overcome these new difficulties. I eventually found a way to do it, but it definitely took longer than it should have.

So I want to offer my fellow students with disabilities some tips on how to better communicate with their teachers: 

1. Try your best to explain what your condition is and how it affects your education

2. Be empathetic to their difficult situation and busy schedules, but stand your ground and tell them what you need

3.  Be willing to answer any questions they may have

4. Don't hesitate to ask for help. I know it can be embarrassing for us sometimes but if you do, I'm sure there would be a lot of people willing to help.

An aspect of education people often seems to overlook is the social one. The relationship with your classmates has a certain amount of importance when it comes to your school experience.

In Bulgaria, where I come from, kids are highly uneducated on the topic of disabilities. So, one of the things I had to do was provide the needed information for everyone.

Nowadays, bullying is a very common problem in this environment. It would be a lie if I said I've never been through it myself. The way I overcame that was finding a place where I felt understood and wanted.

It is important to focus on the people who care and respect you. However, that's easier said than done. Just follow your heart and do what is best for you.

Tips for able-bodied students to help colleagues with disabilities:

As far as what our able-bodied peers can do to make us feel comfortable, here are a few tips I've come up with over the years:

  1. Don't focus on the disability of the person. It doesn't define them. Each of us has their own unique personality which goes far beyond one particular aspect of our lives.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Yes, some of us do feel uncomfortable answering them but if that’s the case, the person themself will tell you so.
  3. Don’t be afraid of physical contact. This may sound strange, however, over the years, I’ve had instances of friends being afraid to give me a hug because they’re scared of “hurting” me. It’s better to just ask, rather than avoiding it altogether.

♿ Don't focus on the disability of the person. It doesn't define them 
💭 Don’t be afraid to ask questions 
🤗 Don’t be afraid of physical contact

Мария Александрова - застъпник за приобщаващо образование
UNICEF Bulgaria/2019

At the end of the day, inclusive education is not just about the big policies and reforms; it’s about the small changes each of us can make to create a better environment for everyone.