Shamla Maharaj photographed at the Faculty of Agriculture, Frank Stockdale Building, UWI, St Augustine. Makeup by Shenelle Escayg, photography by Mark Lyndersay.
Originally published in Express Woman, November 04, 2016
My name is Shamla and my journey began the day my parents took me to the Princess Elizabeth Home. I was 4 ½ years old. I remember watching them walk away. I was sobbing and I asked the nurse “When are they coming back?”
It was then and there that I knew my worst nightmare had become a reality. I was going to be separated from my family. My parents and my two brothers were my security blanket and now I had to cope with people I was unfamiliar with, being my guardians and caretakers.
Adapting to my new home was extremely difficult. I was shy and timid and was scared to even ask for water. My family was far away and transportation was not readily available.
This was a home and school for special and disabled children, but I still felt excluded. Through the years I learned many adaptation skills pertaining to my disability. These skills strengthened me and with the dedicated help of my Common Entrance teacher, I graduated as valedictorian and best overall student.
Having sat Common Entrance like every other child my age, I was ecstatic at the thought that I would finally be able to attend a normal school and return home after each day of classes as my brothers did. The years ahead of secondary and tertiary education opened my eyes to the ignorance of the needs of disabled persons.
I was initially refused enrollment into secondary school, until my father took things into in his own hands and constructed a desk to suit my needs and two ramps for my wheelchair. At university this proved to be a challenge too and classes were now held downstairs as suggested by my parents and myself.
I often missed extracurricular activities, which made me feel sad, but I reassured myself that this was my destiny and I was meant to live this life. Not once did I expect to be treated differently from other students. Eventually, as teachers and students better understood my desire for equal treatment, coping became easier.
I had one goal as a child up until now and that is to be successful through my work and to be independent.
I will always be grateful for the sacrifices my family made in order for me to make it this far. My siblings took time out from their busy lives every day, to drive me to and from my home in Barrackpore, to UWI in St. Augustine. I now have a BSc in Agribusiness Management and Master’s degree in Marketing and Agribusiness (Business and Marketing Analysis specialisation).
I have now moved on to my PhD in Agricultural Economics (Marketing and Agribusiness Specialisation). My philosophy is perseverance, determination and always giving my best.
Attaining my Bachelor’s degree gave me public exposure and I was now being published on the front page of various newspapers. It also gave my parents a renewed sense of hope and paved the way for me becoming a motivational speaker and the voice for persons with disabilities. I love my country but the reality is that the needs of the disabled are often ignored.
In 2013 I received an invitation from UNESCO to attend their 8th World Youth Forum in Paris. I was elated! On the first day of the forum I was ushered into the VIP room thinking it was just protocol, only to look up and see thousands of youth staring up at me. Unknowingly, I was chosen to be amongst the opening speakers.
As my turn to speak approached, I felt very nervous but I told myself that I was on the world stage representing my country. I spoke from my heart and I was received with a standing ovation. I was the only person with a disability in that world forum.
I am currently employed in my second job. My first job was a challenge just like school was, in terms of no facilities for persons with disabilities. I assumed duties three months after being offered the job and just like secondary school, a ramp had to be built and I had to prove my competency even though it was there on paper. I am still working on my goal of finding success through my career.
This would enable my independence because having a disability is expensive and just like anyone else I want to live a good life with what I earn. Striving for independence is still a challenge no matter what level I reach, due to lack of awareness and infrastructural access for persons with disabilities in Trinidad and Tobago. Often our voices are not heard.
I am a very reluctant person when it comes to love, not because of the nature of my disability, but the mere fact I have a disability and have to be dependent on someone. Expressing how I feel about someone has always been a challenge for me so you can imagine expressing love. I am now 30 and we will see what happens, after all, I am still human.
Although I have come a long way, there is still an infinite way to go. I will continue to advocate for change, for acceptance and equity. I will not give up no matter the challenges that come my way. It scares me to know my mother is aging and pains my heart that I’ve lost my father.
They have been my champions throughout it all and I fight to make them proud. I love my country and I hope one day that I will be given the opportunity to help charter the way forward for ALL persons in my country.
The production of the Lioness series, highlighting the experiences of 12 mothers, is supported by Cause an Effect, Angostura Limited, First Citizens Bank and A Very Special Disabilities Forum.