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Tuesday 20 August 2019
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Equal opportunities advocate

Shamla Maharaj

Shamla Maharaj never allowed Cerebral Palsy to rob her of a childhood. In fact, she told WMN, it was not until time for her to begin a formal education that it occurred to her she had a disability. “When I was really young I didn’t realise I had a disability, because when I wanted to do something with my brothers and my cousins they accommodated me. My parents always made sure I was involved so I always felt normal.”

As an adult, the 33-year-old still refuses to allow her disability to dictate what she can and cannot do. Every Tuesday at 6:15 am she hosts Unique not Different, a segment on NOW, the morning show on TTT. “I went to an interview on TTT in their segment called Leaders of Now,” and was interviewed by host Lisa Wickham. About one week later Wickham contacted her and asked if she would be interested in hosting her own segment to interview people with disabilities who were successful at what they do. “I never imagined that I would be doing it. I still can’t believe it. I had no training and was just thrown into the lion’s den. Each time I do it it’s like the first time and when I complete the segment I get excited all over again,” she chuckled.

Maharaj graduated from the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine with a BSc in agribusiness management, an MSc in agribusiness and marketing, specialising in business and marketing analysis. She is currently pursuing an MPhil in agricultural economics, which she plans to upgrade to a PhD and specialise in marketing. But with all her accomplishments, like many people with disabilities, there was always one challenge after another when dealing with the education system.

“Children with disabilities who are allowed in the system now is due to the fight put up by their parents. There is no equal opportunity when it comes to education and children with disabilities. How many children in special Ed graduated and went on to do other things? I think the entire system needs to be redone to include people with disabilities. Once children can do the work, they should be allowed to.

“The people in TT should treat everyone equally and see them for their worth and not their outlook and what they can give. We are humans and we want things for ourselves and we want to work for it. We want the same as anyone else, success and progress.”

Maharaj said had it not been for her family’s tenacity and continual support she would never have been allowed to reach her full potential.

“I grew up in Barrackpore. My dad was a cane labourer and my mom, a housewife. I have two younger brothers and growing up I wasn’t aware of the full extent of my disability. At the beginning, they too had no clue about what it was. I was diagnosed at six months old.”

When she was four and a half her father insisted she had to go to school and tried enrolling her into Rochard Douglas Presbyterian School.

“They told him they couldn’t accommodate me in the school. He asked a lot of questions and someone told him about the Princess Elizabeth special school in Woodbrook. He enrolled me in the clinic and my parents were told that my IQ level was pretty high. I was accepted into the centre.” She said they commuted to and from Woodbrook for a while, but eventually, she had to stay at the centre because the commute became too much.

“It was very institutionalised. Everything was about timing and that experience truly opened my eyes about my disability. Some days were better than others and as in any institution, some nurses made the experience difficult, but there were some that were motherly and treated us like their own children.”

Maharaj stayed at the centre for ten years until she wrote the then Common Entrance exam and passed for Barrackpore Secondary Comprehensive. “That was another learning experience for me. The principal did not want to take me in. He made all sorts of excuses but my father refused to take no for an answer. He went in and made all accommodations for me.” Her father built ramps for the downstairs classroom, as well as a special desk for her, and he ensured her classes were switched from upstairs to downstairs. “He insisted that what the principal was doing was against law because I had passed for the school.” Eventually, Maharaj said, she was allowed into the school.

“Some students were very curious at first and asked a lot of questions about my disability. When they got accustomed to me they said, ‘I don’t see you as having a disability’. The teachers were nice and treated me like any other student.”

After completing A Levels, Maharaj was accepted into UWI in 2007, but was faced with a similar situation – no proper accommodations for people with cerebral palsy. But she made do, pushed ahead and graduated in three years.

She is planning on completing her PhD by 2021, when she plans to expend more energy into using her voice to advocate for people with disabilities. “I want to use my brand to initiate things in the corporate world like inclusive policies for people with disabilities and vulnerable groups. I plan to take my segment further and spread my wings for opportunities in the media. It’s like a whole conundrum in my head.”

But her love for agriculture also has a sacred place in her future. “I want to help the agricultural industry. The industry itself in this country is going down. There is no progress. We are just sitting by and watching it getting grimmer and grimmer.”

What is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy (CP) is the most common disability of childhood that affects movement and motor skills. It is a neurological condition with brain damage as the underlying cause. The damage may occur while the baby is still in utero, during labour and delivery, or shortly after birth.

Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term, which means it refers to a group of disorders and symptoms. While all the possible symptoms, disabilities, and complications are related, one child’s experience is unique and different from another’s.

Having cerebral palsy can lead to other medical conditions, depending on the severity of the disorder and what parts of the body it affects:

• Speech problems

• Learning disabilities

• Cognitive impairments

• Problems with hearing and vision

• Epilepsy

• Emotional and behavioural issues

• Spinal deformities

• Joint problems

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