- Lizzie and her team began to write a new narrative, creating positive content featuring women with disabilities, and sharing it on social media.
- This-Ability is also developing a USSD platform to provide accessible sexual and reproductive health information for women and girls with disabilities.
When Lizzie Kiama took the photograph that would be on everyone’s lips soon after, she thought, “maybe this will trigger a little conversation”.
The photo would go on a billboard, and it would not be the sort of billboard people pass without noticing it. People would stop and look.
And stop and look they did when they saw the image that one advertising agency had declined to print for being too graphic, then turned to social media with scathing emotion.
Lizzie, the founder and managing director of This-Ability Trust — the organisation that put up the billboard — was in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, attending a conference on gender equality when all this was happening. Her phone buzzed incessantly.
The following day, she woke up with a migraine. Even though she and her team had set out to spark a conversation about period-shame among women and girls with disabilities, they didn’t see it coming as fast and furious as it did.
Why did they have to use a disabled girl? Why was there blood on her face? Did men come up with this concept? Were women with disabilities consulted?
FEEDING ON CONTROVERSY
It was a nerve-wracking time for Lizzie and her team, but they were happy with the feedback.
“I’d rather people talk about us from a controversial standpoint than ignore us,” says the 40-year-old.
As a woman with disability, being ignored is a reality Lizzie has experienced one too many times.
She experienced it this October at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, where she was participating in a meeting on gender equality.
Lizzie was set to moderate a panel, but the ramp leading to the entrance of the room where the session was taking place was not wheelchair-friendly — it was steep, slippery and lacked guard rails.
Other women with disabilities were pushed up, but Lizzie protested the lack of safety considerations in the design of the ramp and refused to be pushed up.
She advocated for a ramp that wheelchair users could go up independently and safely.
“My protests were ignored. I called the organisers, told them I couldn’t access the room and asked them what they would do (for instance, move the session to an accessible room), but they were willing to go on with the meeting without addressing the accessibility issue,” she recalls.
It took a tragedy for people to take notice. Amid Lizzie’s protests, one man insisted that he could go up without a problem because his wheelchair was motorised.
But when he got to the top, he fell off and hit his head on the concrete. He was rushed to hospital in an ambulance.
“I don’t know what complications he got … if he hadn’t fallen, people were willing to go on with the meeting as if everything was fine, but these (disability issues) are life and death issues. We don’t turn off being disabled!”
Often, Lizzie sees how people overlook disability, which is why her mission is to advance the rights and inclusion of women with disabilities and to make them visible.
“We want to use advertising to create controversy so that people can begin to have these conversations. People know, but they don’t want to be uncomfortable. We need to make them uncomfortable because we have talked and pushed and advocated and nothing gets done,” she says.
Lizzie first lost mobility in a car accident when she was 18 years old, but by the time she was 19, she was back on her feet again.
Twelve years later, under the weight of pregnancy-related complications, she lost mobility again after the birth of her daughter.
The second time round, Lizzie resisted using a wheelchair and crutches and her husband worried that cooped up in the house, nursing a newborn and moping would send Lizzie into post-partum depression.
When Lizzie gave in to his coaxing and ventured out on crutches, people stared at her.
She wanted to retreat to the safety of home, but her mother’s words kept her going. “My mother always said that the accident did not happen to me for no reason. That I should own it and figure out what I was supposed to do with it,” she remembers.
She did just that, gobbling up everything she could find to help her understand disability and figure out how she could make a difference.
Lizzie also went back to school to learn about disability and volunteered at the National Council for Persons with Disabilities, where she came face to face with the difficulties Kenyans with disabilities face in the world of work.
Afterwards, she started This-Ability Consulting in 2012, to advance the rights of women with disabilities, having noticed that there were hardly any organisations serving the needs of women like herself.
Initially, Lizzie set out to figure out why businesses were not employing persons with disabilities but branched into a different path while organising wheelchair rugby sessions for women with disabilities and women without disabilities.
During these sessions, the women would also get breast and cervical cancer screening, contraceptives and other sexual and reproductive health information and services.
This piqued Lizzie’s interest in sexual and reproductive health rights for women with disabilities.
“I wanted to explore why women with disabilities were not included and why policies were not representative of their needs,” she says.
“There is no gender lens in the disability sector, so the specific realities and needs of women with disabilities are not highlighted or addressed.
We can’t relegate issues of women with disabilities to a department of social protection. The Ministry of Gender needs to come out strongly on our issues, otherwise we fall through the cracks,” explains Lizzie, adding that women with disabilities are ignored because there is no specific language in Kenya’s policies and laws that speaks to women and girls with disabilities.