For ten years Natasha Athara Lewis struggled up the three flights of stairs at the John Donaldson Technical Institute in pursuit of certification in fashion design. Lewis was born with cerebral palsy and uses crutches and a wheelchair to get around. "For those ten years I took every step repeating in my head, 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me', so it never seemed overwhelming, just difficult, but never overwhelming. I knew God had a reward for me at the end of each course I pursued," she told WMN.
The struggle has paid off for the Magna Cum Laude graduate of UTT’s Caribbean Academy of Fashion Design with a Bachelor of Fine Art in Fashion Design, and the proud owner of Athara’s Design, a fashion boutique specialising in contemporary ladies’clothing and fashion jewellery. Lewis draws inspiration from nature, the theatre and new and retro movies, and has found a medium through which she voices her empowerment philosophy, “It is the ability and not the disability that really matters”.
She uses discarded materials such as plastic, plastic bottles, garbage bags, old magazines, bubble wrap, paper bridal runner, felt and leather in her designs, all symbolic of the way in which she believes people with disabilities are perceived by the wider community.
She said members of the differently-abled community have been stereotyped as weak, victims, burdens, outcasts, non-contributing weights on society and incapable of full participation in everyday life. It is her dream that the mindset of society would be similarly converted into thinking of the disabled as strong, creative, trend-setters and valued assets who, once given the opportunity can be tremendous contributors to society. She said her work has been showcased at events hosted by the differently-abled community and earned favourable reviews. She intends to offer dramatic presentations of wearable art collections as a vehicle to share her gift of fashion, as well as to convey her message of empowerment.
Lewis' perseverance was recently recognised by the staff at Malick Secondary School, where she teaches technology education: Clothing & Textiles and Garment Production (CVQ). They were able to secure sponsorship of a ramp through the Massy Foundation and the National Lotteries Control Board (NLCB). The ramp is expected to be completed next month and will afford Lewis more accessibility to her classroom and the washrooms. She said the issue had been raised with the Ministry of Education but staff at the school decided not to wait any longer and sought assistance elsewhere.
"I especially thankful to the principal Mr Harry Jaikaran and the dean Mr Rajdeo Sinanan, who looked for alternatives and approached Massy Foundation and NLCB, who provided funding for the toilet facilities and the driveway leading to an area close to the classroom, respectively. Mr Sinanan spearheaded the projects and the toilet was completed in the July/August vacation and the driveway which started in the December break is about 90 per cent complete. This will no doubt change my experience at the school, in terms of accessibility, dignity and providing me with an opportunity for greater participation. I never had any doubt it would work out, just as God had sustained me through my years attending school, I knew He would do the same for me to now teach at school," she said with a smile.
It is this same confidence and determination that allows Lewis to always look at ways around obstacles, rather than become daunted.
On any given weekday she can be seen hard at work in her classroom with a roomful of students who trying to emulate the way she handles her sewing machine. "I laugh and have to remind them that the way I operate my machine is not "normal", she joked.
The industrial sewing machine has been personalised to suit Lewis' needs. Regular machines are equipped with a peddle, which is pressed by the foot to operate the machine. Lewis' machine has been modified to allow her to use her elbow to operate a hook, which then powers up the peddle.
As a child Lewis attended the Princess Elizabeth School for the Physically Disabled and then the St James Secondary School.
"I wanted to go to Miami to pursue my dream, then they brought that programme here. I was one of the first to enroll," she recalled of the fashion design programme. She said her parents, Michael and Phyllis, along with extended family members always encouraged her to follow her dreams. One of her aunts gave her her first sewing machine when she was 18.
Lewis, a nominee for a National Youth Award in 1992 and 1993, also has a passion for community building and has served as director of the St James Church of the Nazarene's Caravan. She also provides graphic design services for the church's Vacation Bible School book. She is also a motivational speaker who offers her insights to new students at the University of the West Indies.
"My passion to mentor people, especially youths continued to grow. I was aware of the many challenges of our youths and so I felt convinced that I can use my life-story as an inspiration to the youths, and to help them to appreciate and use fashion design for their own self expression. I therefore applied to the teaching service and received my teaching appointment in 2014 at the school where I currently teach."
It is also her dream to see this country implement the use of aides for people with disability to conduct their work. "My greatest desire is to see the government make laws and policies to ensure that all public spaces are accessible to all person of the society. Accessibility is not a privilege, but a right.”