The first adjective that pops to mind when we meet Ashura Michael, 24, is that she is affable. She has a bright engaging smile, open and expectant look.
Accompanying her is a cousin, who is her interpreter today. You see, Ashura is deaf, the result of a measles attack when she was four years old.
The life she had known was abruptly cut short, and she had to re-learn how to communicate using sign language.
“My parents, through the advice of my doctor, enrolled me to a primary school for children with special needs so that I could learn basic sign language. I progressed to a secondary school for the deaf, and it is while here that I decided to be an agent of change,” she explains, and adds,
“I had heard several cases of young hearing-impaired girls who had been sexually assaulted, their perpetrators never having been apprehended. Also, I had noticed that students with disabilities were treated differently from the able-bodied ones, and was sure that I could do my bit to change this if I studied law.”
Her family, however, thought education was a better choice, and even went ahead to point out several deaf young people who were doing well in that career, but her heart was firmly set in law.
“I reached out to anybody I thought could help me achieve my dream. Finally, I got an opportunity to study a diploma in law in the then Inoorero University through the support of the National Council for Persons With Disabilities since my guardians could not afford the school fees.”
She graduated from the institution in 2013, hoping to enroll for a degree in law, but that was not to be, the argument being that she was deaf and had not studied Kiswahili in high school.
Her explanation that the subject was not offered in the schools she went to did nothing to help.
Having reached a dead end, she decided to study for a degree in gender and development – she is in her fourth year at the University of Nairobi.
“I was disappointed, but I decided not to dwell on it and simply move on to plan B.”
The 2016 Mandela Washington fellow explains how she got into active activism:
“After completing secondary school in 2010, I moved to the city, and someone who knew my desire directed me to Leonard Cheshire Disability, a charity. Through my friends at the organisation, I began lobbying for equal opportunities for persons with disabilities, PWDs, such as access to information and education. I represented Kenyan PWDs in several high-level meetings and had the opportunity to work with youth from various countries and persons with disabilities. During the UN General Assembly in July 2014 in New York, I was elected co-chair for the global partnership for children with disabilities.
I have worked with various organisations which focus on youth with disabilities, organisations such as Kenya National Association of the deaf, Youth Synergy Kenya, Kenya Vision 2030 and Positive Women’s Network. Currently, I am working with VSO Kenya on a community empowering project in Bungoma County.
Internationally, I have had opportunities to present my views at the World Conference on Youth- Sri Lanka, International Human Rights Conference initiated by Open Society Foundation, UN State Parties Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities in New York, and Leonard Cheshire Disability, in the UK.
I use this exposure to advocate for equal access to information by deaf people through sign language interpreters, access to braille for the blind, justice for women and girls with disabilities, and also participate in the implementation of laws that address the needs of those with disabilities. I am working on a project that, if successful, will see the deaf enjoy video telecommunication services.
Apart from advocacy and studies, I run an initiative, Free A Girl’s World Network, that I founded in 2015. The organisation is a non-profit CBO whose mandate is to uplift the lives of girls whose potential is suppressed by disability, needy backgrounds, and even retrogressive cultural practices.
Throughout the year, our volunteers offer programs that aim to alleviate poverty in informal settlements, promote food security and provide legal redress for girls that need it. We also sensitise the public on the place of the girl child and advocate for equal terms for girls and young women when it comes to job opportunities.
Through my initiative, I have held many mentorship programs for young boys and girls and provided sanitary towels to girls in various schools, as well as held book drives for special schools in Bungoma County. I am able to do this through the support of friends and well-wishers.
In a society where those with disability face stigma and discrimination, it is easy to lose our voices and be lost in the crowd. I want to stand out as a mentor, not to be a voice for the voiceless, but to empower young people living with disability so that they can have a voice of their own.”
The former TV host for Able Differently, a program that airs on the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, believes that the unique challenges she and other like her face have opened up unique opportunities which she advises her peers to take advantage of.
“Don’t use your shortcomings as an excuse not to reach for your dreams,” says Ashura, who, in 2014, was recognised by Peace Ambassadors Kenya as an outstanding leader.
“I am a firm believer that my ability is stronger than my disability.”