For people in Madagascar who live with a disability, life is not easy.
Disabled people are often pointed at, isolated, separated from their families, or neglected. This is because disability is often considered a curse in a society where superstition is commonplace -- even if we prefer not to admit it ….
My life changed, when I met Fela. Her life story opened my eyes. My main three takeaways from my friendship with Fela are:
- First, where there’s a will there’s a way. Sure, sometimes the obstacles seem insurmountable, but we have to keep hope alive and never give up.
- Second, disabled people deserve attention, because many of their rights – even the most basic ones – are being ignored.
- Third, we shouldn’t waste our time waiting for the government to solve our problems, but rather take the initiative.
How I met Fela
Back in 2006, when I was taking a course at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation  called Youth Leadership Training Program, Fela Razafinjato was the only disabled person in our class of 25 students.
She impressed everyone with her frank, bold attitude and her lack of psychological complexes about her disability.
It was then, at age 24, when we quickly became friends, and she told me about her lifelong struggles. A real success story compared to the lives of many other disabled people.
A disabled woman perhaps, but above all a fighter
When Fela was 3-years-old, she contracted polio and lost the use of her legs. Luckily, her parents didn’t make a big deal out of it.
Her mother insisted that she should receive the same education as other children her age, but most schools in Antananarivo – both private and public – refused to let her attend. She was finally lucky enough to be admitted to a religious school, but for a considerable physical and psychological cost.
For years, she had to climb long flights of stairs on crutches, and her classmates laughed at her. But it would have taken a lot more than that to deter Fela from her goal of living a “normal” life.
Fela graduated from business school. She is now married and has two beautiful little girls. At the same time, she manages the Centre Sembana Mijoro  (page in French)—an NGO that sponsors disabled children and advocates for inclusive educations
Fela also opened an education center for children suffering from cerebral palsy, a condition that affects motor skills and requires constant care. The Centre offers two workshops – sewing and pastry making – which create jobs for women living with disabilities.
As I said, Fela is a success story! In Madagascar, just being a woman is already a burden, but being a disabled woman makes you feel as if you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.
Together we mobilized change
Since 2006, Fela and I have collaborated through our respective organizations (CSM and the Nova Stella association, which I head).
Together we fought for the reform of Malagasy laws on persons with disabilities.
We prepared a practical guide on disability rights, to make the public aware that people with disabled have the same rights as non-disabled people.
In 2009, we helped conduct a study on the inclusion of disabled children in Antananarivo schools. We found that disabled children represented only 0.26 percent of the total number schoolchildren from 631 schools in Antananarivo.
Every day we try to come up with innovative solutions that will allow people with disabilities to live in a decent environment that is well adapted to their abilities. For example: find ways to accommodate public toilets for people with disabilities or building ramps outside public buildings.
Today, my friends and I are working on a volunteer basis. That surprises people, because Malagasies don’t have a culture of altruism. We are often asked, “What are you getting out of this?” The simple answer is: the satisfaction of helping others and making a small contribution to a vital cause.
Mobilizing young people and raising their awareness about disabilities
People living with and without disabilities should join hands, break down barriers created by the government, and demand better living conditions for all.
There are already some enthusiastic young people that have teamed up to develop virtual platforms and discussions on social networks (page in French) , showing that people with disabilities can also participate in these networks.
Other young people are following Fela’s example and have chosen to act at the grassroots level, bringing people together to change ways of thinking and combat the wait-and-see attitude and culture of begging that often prevail among the disabled community.
Where do you stand? What are you doing for disability rights? Even the smallest action is a step to bring about change. So what are you waiting for? Get moving! Whether it’s for this cause or another, take matters into your own hands and become an agent of change!