UNICEF ‘Activate’ speakers call for an end to discrimination against persons with disabilities
On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, six speakers in Rwanda addressed millions to share their stories and calls to action
KIGALI, RWANDA – For most people, public speaking does not come naturally. But if you are a person with a disability – or speaking about a loved one with a disability – you might also have the added pressure of real or perceived stigma weighing on you.
In Rwanda, as in many parts of the world, disabilities are not always well understood, and people with disabilities are often discriminated against, either intentionally or unconsciously.
On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in Rwanda, six speakers bravely faced the camera during UNICEF’s ‘Activate Talks’ event and shook off the stigma to speak openly about their experiences with discrimination.
Born with paraplegia, Omar was not able to walk on his own and could only attend school if his friends carried him there on their backs. You would never know from his infectious smiles and inquisitive, outgoing nature, but Omar suffered under years of hateful, ignorant comments from his peers.
“My biggest challenge was not only the unfriendly terrain for a boy with a disability, but the mindset of people around me,” Omar recalls.
“I wanted to share my story today because I am proud of who I am, and I am proud of people like me. I want to share who I am with others.”
After years in the hospital, intensive surgery managed to correct some of Omar’s paraplegia, and at 26 years old he can now walk on his own with crutches.
“To other young people with disabilities, I want to encourage you: Although your past might seem bad, your future will be better.”
“When I first started school, the other parents did not believe that children with visual impairments like mine could learn. When I succeeded in school, people assumed I was given easier exams, special ones for children with disabilities.”
Sandrine knew the feeling of judgment and discrimination when she was just 6 years old. Her community could not accept that a blind girl could still learn and pass all her exams.
“But now I am in university, in one of the most prestigious campuses in the country, and I proved to others that I am clever,” Sandrine says.
But 23-year-old Sandrine should not have had to prove herself.
"People with disabilities have rights just like people without disabilities, and we deserve to enjoy those rights."
“I want to end discrimination against people with disabilities in education and in employment. I want authorities to take action for children with visual impairments who do not have supportive families like I did, to help them go to school and fulfil their rights.”
At 17 years old, Olive gave birth to twins with albinism. She felt the sting of discrimination almost immediately: Her family cast her out and the father of her children abandoned her, forcing her to drop out of school to provide for her infant daughters.
For several months, Olive was consumed by shame. Neighbours would even refer to her daughters as animals when they walked by.
But one day, Olive was visiting a local government office when a woman noticed her hiding behind the building to breastfeed.
“Mama Julienne asked me why I was hiding and told me that I should not be afraid,” Olive recalls. “She encouraged me to share my story with her. This gave me more confidence to be open about my children and meet other mothers my age.”
It took only this small kind gesture from one person to change Olive’s life – and her daughter’s – for the better.
"I felt myself become more empowered. People who used to reject me now approach me."
“Even other children need to learn how to interact with children with disabilities. Every single person should learn to care.”
“The tip is to have self-confidence,” says Pacifique.
“I have not missed a single milestone in school. I am now in my third year of secondary school.”
But 15-year-old Pacifique knows that not all children like him are as fortunate. “I am thankful that I have supportive parents who did not hide me inside the house as some do when they have children with disabilities.”
Born with fragile bones, Pacifique has multiple physical disabilities.
“Although my body is disabled, my heart is not. I know that I have value.”
Pacifique advocates for other children with disabilities by participating in local children’s forums. During these meetings, children with and without disabilities convene to discuss issues relevant to kids in Rwanda. Pacifique even attended the National Children’s Summit in 2019, speaking out for the rights of children with disabilities in front of Ministers, decision makers, and international organisations like UNICEF.
“I urge parents who hold stigma against their own children to adjust their behaviour,” he says. “They need to improve their attitude and recognise that we are able.”
“I was not born with a disability,” Christian says. “I lost my arms in an electricity accident.”
After losing his arms, Christian dropped out of school, feeling too discouraged to continue. “I felt like my life was over,” he recalls.
But Christian’s parents enrolled him into a school where other children with disabilities attended, and Christian saw that he did not need to give up. He studied hard, and eventually earned top marks in his classes, earning him a place in Lycée de Kigali, one of the most prestigious public schools in Rwanda.
Amazingly, Christian writes all his schoolwork and performs many other tasks with his feet.
"I am here to tell people with disabilities and those without that to be disabled is not to lose everything you have to offer."
“Parents who have children with disabilities: Do not perceive this as a problem. Enroll your children in school. Allow them to express themselves. Do not treat them as a charity case before realizing what they are capable of doing.”
Born with a visual impairment, Anisie has not let her blindness stifle her creativity. She is a renowned poet, never shying from an opportunity to share her story.
“My journey is a sign of hope,” she says. “I hope it will inspire and give strength to others.”
“When I was young, no one ever saw what my teeth looked like, because I never smiled,” she says. “I was discriminated against constantly, forced to sit in the front row of my classes, as if my mind was also impaired.”
Now 27, Anisie holds a bachelor’s degree in translation and interpretation. She has learnt to take the anger and sadness she feels when faced with discrimination and turn it into art. She delivers her story not through a speech, but through a lilting spoken word poem.
Anisie is an outspoken advocate in the community, speaking out for the rights of others with disabilities, especially women and girls.
“I have faced discrimination, and now I use my talents to raise my voice to fight stigma, violence and inequality against others like me. And I refuse to be defined by my impairment.”
We all have a role to play
In English, “ACTIVATE” means to cause something to start – whether it’s an action, a thought, or a new behaviour. UNICEF’s Activate Talks event sought to inspire just this, encouraging viewers to learn something new about children and young people with disabilities, taking this new knowledge and inspiration to family, friends and communities.
During the event, UNICEF Representative in Rwanda Julianna Lindsey reminded us, “We all have a role to play – governments, business, and individuals. Let’s all commit to creating a more inclusive society. There are always actions you can take. Be bold like our young speakers today.”
Stop for a moment, look around you and see what actions you can take, today, tomorrow and in the future to ensure we stop discriminating and stigmatizing once and for all.