Lizzie Kiama changes perceptions of disability in KenyaBy Hannah Lustig October 22, 2014
Lizzie Kiama checks her watch, then glances nervously toward the door. With only 10 minutes left, she begins to worry– what if no one shows up?
Every time she hosts a game of wheelchair rugby, Kiama is seized with these same, creeping fears. “It has been ingrained in my society that disability is a bad thing,” Kiama says. “It’s a negative thing. Disability is ugly, disability is poverty, disability is a lack of education.”
Even in modernized areas of Kenya, buildings lack crucial accessibility features, like elevators and ramps. These physical barriers are compounded by less tangible obstacles, like illiteracy. In the absence of public education, Kenyan schools are exclusive, costly, and primarily located in wealthier, urban areas. Moreover, students with disabilities (when they can afford schooling) are designated to specialized schools, many of which are crowded and insufficiently funded.
“In my country, no accommodations are made,” Kiama says. “So if you’re disabled, you’re destined for failure.”
It is a mentality Kiama knows personally. At 18 years old, she lost mobility in a car accident. Kiama needed a wheelchair during her recovery, but refused to identify as disabled. She didn’t want to be labeled, banished to that marginalized group. She didn’t want to become invisible.
Kiama regained the ability to walk, subsequently marrying and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration through the United States International University. But, upon giving birth to her daughter, Kiama lost mobility permanently, the result of weak joints after pregnancy.
Kiama sunk into depression and that despair, she says, affected her parenting. Resolving to improve for her children, Kiama reclaimed her identity. At 30, she embraced the label she’d denied twelve years earlier.
“It took really looking at myself and accepting that I was, indeed, disabled and that I could look at it as something negative or I could let it be a source of empowerment,” Kiama says.
As a mother and wife, Kiama found her place in society again. Yet, she still missed being active, a private loss. Kenya offers few adaptive sports, and only for men. . Women with disabilities, Kiama says, are left behind at the intersection of gender inequality and disability discrimination.
Unwilling to settle for invisibility, Kiama took matters into her own hands.
And so, in 2011, This-Ability Consulting was born, a firm devoted to helping companies implement sustainable, inclusive business models and strategies. Through This-Ability, Kiama also launched Women and Wheels, a series of wheelchair rugby games followed by lifestyle workshops. In one post-game session, a team of doctors offered on-site family planning services and health screenings. Sports, Kiama says, are “universal,” making them an ideal platform for social change.
Back at the gym, a stream of women and girls (and even a few men) pour in through the doors– a site that never fails to melt Kiama’s heart. Two women are hesitant to sit in the chairs, but Kiama persuades them to try. Once they start playing, their reservations slip away, brushed aside like beads of sweat.
Kiama’s project is still young, but it’s growing. Her work is creating the considerate, inclusive society she’s always dreamt of seeing.
“Whether they are able-bodied or disabled or gay or lesbian, or however they may identify, I want a society that is accepting of them,” Kiama says. “That is encouraging. That is affording the same opportunities.”
“A state where everyone can be good at what they do or can be whoever they want to be.”