On the grass between the ballot boxes and the queue of voting students, Mary, 15, sits in a red wheelchair. It is Global Vote Day at Joyland Special School for the Physically Challenged in Kisumu, Kenya.
Mary is nervous. Many children from other schools, who are not disabled, have been invited to the Global Vote. Mary isn’t sure whether she has the courage to recite the poem she has written. What if they start to laugh at her?
But Mary decides to go
for it. After all, she has
the chance to tell everyone
what it’s like to have your
rights violated. How it feels
when you’re not respected for
who you are. Her voice trembles,
and then gets stronger
and stronger as she reads:
“There is no application form to be disabled. If there were, I do not imagine myself filling one in...”
A hush descends over the people queuing to vote. Everyone is listening to Mary. When she is finished, there is an explosion of applause. Mary looks around, blushing. She is surprised. She hadn’t expected that!
Never got to play
“I was afraid that the children who are not disabled would laugh at me. After all, it’s the ‘healthy’ ones who usually make life difficult for us. They stare, laugh and point. It feels horrible. As if we’re aliens,” says Mary. She has had that feeling for most of her life. “My parents died when I was small, so I had to live with my aunt. Just like almost all parents of disabled children, she was ashamed of me, and kept me hidden away. I was never allowed to leave the house. I could never go out and play. The idea of going to school was totally unthinkable. “I was never allowed to eat at the table with my aunt’s family. I had to sit on the floor and eat leftover scraps. I wasn’t even allowed to wash, or wear clothes like other people. I wore a torn old blouse on top, and from the waist down I was naked. I didn’t have a wheelchair, and most of the time I just had to lie on the floor. Since I wasn’t very mobile and nobody helped me, I hardly ever made it to the toilet in time. When I needed comfort and called my aunt ‘mum’, she would shout at me that she would never be my mother.”
“When a neighbour saw me, he was furious with my aunt. He said that of course I should be treated like all other children! He helped me get into the school where I now live. Here, I get help to wash and eat good food. Finally, I dared to believe that life could be better. And it is! I’m doing well at school, but the most important thing is that I have found friends, a family. Finally, I feel like I belong somewhere, just as everyone should feel in life. You shouldn’t have to be alone. Today when I read my poem, I got the same lovely feeling. When everyone really listened and then clapped, it felt like we belonged together. And it felt like I counted. Global Vote Day is incredibly important to me, because it was through reading The Globe magazine and preparing for the Vote that I first found out that we disabled children actually have rights. Today, I voted to fight for all children’s rights to be respected. For my right to be respected just as I am!”
TEXT: ANDREAS LÖNN
PHOTOS: KIM NAYLOR