For every child, every right: Maria Alexandrova, Bulgarian advocate for inclusive education

How one teenager changed exam rules

Angela Hawke
Maria Alexandrova at her apartment building in Dabnika district of Vratsa.
UNICEF/Maciek Nabrdalik

29 October 2019

This story is part of special series produced by the UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Office on young advocates using their voices to protect and promote the rights of other young people to mark 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Some people take education for granted, simply because it was given to them. But for people like me – and not just me – education is a right to be fought for”

Maria Alexandrova, aged 18, describes herself, as a “nerd, a musical enthusiast and a millennial, just like everybody else. “I do the same things a normal teenager does.” 

Refusing to be defined or constrained by her cerebral palsy, Maria is a powerful advocate for accessible and inclusive education for every child and adolescent in Bulgaria and beyond. Through sheer tenacity, she has become Bulgaria’s first adolescent living with cerebral palsy to take the prestigious Cambridge Assessment in English exam, charting a course for others to follow. 

Maria speaks perfect English, but because she moves her arms more slowly than her peers, it was more difficult for her to complete the exam in the limited time required. As a result of her advocacy, the local examining centre agreed to change the timing of the exam and let her use a computer, giving her an equal chance of gaining this prestigious language certificate. 

“We did face resistance,” she says. “We went back and forth for 2 to 3 months, with different alternatives towards me taking the exam. The only difference is for the writing module of the exam, I would be using a computer instead of a notepad. I was the first person with that type of disability to sit the exam.” 

These changes pave the way for other adolescents with physical disabilities to take and pass the exam, boosting their chances of going to university, finding work and living independent lives.

Maria's Certificate of Advanced English from Cambridge University.
UNICEF / Maciek Nabrdalik
Maria's Certificate of Advanced English from Cambridge University.
Maria Alexandrova and her best friend, Vanessa Georgieva in a classroom of “Kozma Tritchkov” Secondary school in Vratsa.
UNICEF / Maciek Nabrdalik
Maria Alexandrova and her best friend, Vanessa Georgieva

Driving change in Bulgaria

It is the latest of many battles Maria has fought – and won – in a country where an estimated 14,000 children with disabilities are out of school and kindergarten. Too often in Bulgaria, people living with disabilities including children, are faced with stigma and discrimination because society focuses on what they cannot do, rather than on their abilities and potential.  

“Initially I was raised with the idea that I’m no different from anybody else,” she remembers. “But as I grew up, I started noticing people’s different treatment. Instances of discrimination. ‘Why does she look so different?’ ‘Why is she so scary?’”

Maria was rejected by three schools until finding this school – Kozma Tritckov – her fourth and final option. Here, she found support at last. Maria says she has a better relationship with her classmates than she had at any previous school, and is helping to transform attitudes within her own school and community. 

Maria Alexandrova her mother, Zornitsa Bosilkova and her best friend, Vanessa Georgieva at a coffee place downtown Vratsa.
UNICEF / Maciek Nabrdalik

“Initially I was raised with the idea that I’m no different from anybody else" 

“Children are often diminished to just ‘the future of our country’” she says. “But they’re not really nurtured and their perspective isn’t really being heard. When in reality, we are the people facing those issues. And if we don’t talk about it, who will?”

Her city of Vratsa remains highly inaccessible for people in wheelchairs. She can’t even go to the cinema, which is up three flights of stairs. Maria’s Mum still has to carry her whenever they are confronted with steps, which undermines her independence. Determined to live her own life, Maria doubts she can find a job in Bulgaria unless there are dramatic changes in attitudes, infrastructure, education and labour markets. 

“I want to study abroad because I feel like where I’m from there’s no career opportunities for people like me,” she says. “The Cambridge exam was important to me in particular because that certificate presents that I have that level of English speaking skill.

“If you have the drive to accomplish something, there’s nothing impossible."

“If you have the drive to accomplish something, there’s nothing impossible. I would have turned the world upside down just to sit that type of exam.”

Looking ahead, Maria wants to become a music producer and is interested in video production and multi-media. 

Meanwhile, education has been – and will continue to be – Maria’s gateway to a life well lived. “If I can live a comfortable life through my intelligence and education, that’s more important than being able to just physically walk.”  

The CRC @ 30 in Bulgaria

2019 is the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC): the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. The CRC has helped to transform children’s lives worldwide, inspiring Governments to change laws and policies and invest in children’s health, education and protection. Importantly, it has enabled more children like Maria to have a voice, participate in their societies and hold their Governments to account.

To mark this anniversary, Bulgaria, Guatemala and Luxembourg collaborate with UNICEF to create the ‘global pledge’ to children and are advocating for its adoption by all countries.

UNICEF Bulgaria will hold a National Summit on 20 November 2019 at the National Palace of Culture to accelerate progress for children with disabilities, highlighting their abilities and untapped potential. The aim is for Government, civil society, businesses, the media, parents and young activists such as Maria to work collectively to remove the barriers that confront children and adolescents with disabilities.