As we commence Women’s Month this August, we want to shine light on the powerful women that are inspiring change in South Africa. Our story focuses on a woman who has centred her life’s work around promoting inclusion for all and the untapped potential for youth to make a difference. She is a student, adaptive athlete, dancer, activist and changemaker; and in the spirit of celebrating impactful women – let’s take a deeper look at the awesome, influential Chaeli Mycroft.
If you have heard of Chaeli Mycroft from The Chaeli Campaign, you may have heard her being described as an “ability activist”. But, short of Googling what this entails, have you ever wondered – what exactly does that mean and how is this identity actioned every day?
It would be remiss not to introduce Chaeli, for those who aren’t familiar. Some of Chaeli’s greatest achievements include accepting the 2011 International Children’s Peace Prize, being the first quadriplegic to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in 2015 and becoming the first adaptive wheelchair athlete to complete the Comrades Marathon in 2016. Currently, Chaeli is a PhD student furthering research on youth activism in South Africa and a world champion wheelchair dancer with her dance partner Damian Michaels.
In between these commitments, Chaeli is invited to attend numerous international conferences and panel discussions every year, including at the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. These speech or forum-style events involve most of what makes Chaeli an activist – using her platform as co-founder of The Chaeli Campaign to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in society. Beyond the award-winning, international recognition is a young woman fighting for the inclusion of differently-abled people in a world whose systems are designed and built for the non-disabled, in more ways than we are comfortable acknowledging.
As in many countries, it is not known exactly how many kids and adults in South Africa have a disability. Firstly, given that families of a child with a disability can experience shame and a tendency to keep their differently-abled children hidden in society, statistics show that underreporting is apparent.
There is also a unique cultural lens in South Africa whereby disability is often seen as a curse by ancestors or a punishment through witchcraft, further contributing to the lack of awareness and recognition of this diverse population. The current standpoint, anecdotal and informed by literature, asserts that the suggested 3 million people reportedly living with disabilities in this country is likely a conservative estimation.
It would be a disservice in a discussion around disability and barriers to the all-embracing ideology of ‘inclusion’ not to mention the significant consequences in South Africa of the lack of tangible investment in basic resources for people . A shortage of necessary financial and managerial input – further marginalising people with disabilities – has resulted in the dire need for safe, affordable public transportation and healthcare, as well as universal design in schools and buildings, to name just a few.
Ultimately, there is a global concern for the lack of visibility, representation and full participation of differently-abled people in society: in social media, film, policy-making groups, all levels of government, mainstream (social and professional) sports, and the workplace in general. This is where Chaeli – diagnosed with cerebral palsy and a lifelong wheelchair user – inspires acceptance and inclusion of others who are marginalised and overlooked by society. An activist since 9 years old, Chaeli Mycroft dedicates her time and life’s work advocating for differently-abled people. Bravely confronting inaccessible designs, discriminatory policies or unfair treatment based on disability, Chaeli’s work as an “ability activist” extends beyond the accolades and lending a voice during policy formation.
“Ability activism” for Chaeli means tackling head-on the opportunities, events or organisations that are not often, if ever, accessed by someone living with physical impairments. This may sound simple to a non-disabled person, perhaps because it usually is. For a wheelchair user or individual whose body does not conform to the vision upon which this world was built, there is extensive work required to overcome the multitude of barriers to participation – attitudinal and procedural.
Although this advocacy takes a different form each time, Chaeli’s work usually encompasses education, dialogue, back-and-forth emails or phone calls and a definitive level of stubbornness! Chaeli’s tenacity, for example, in fighting to participate in the Comrades Marathon as an adaptive athlete has been pioneering. Empowering those in decision-making positions to confront discriminatory barriers excluding people living with disabilities, Chaeli strives to impart awareness and compassion on those with whom she interacts. The myriad channels of advocacy drive home the goal of inclusion and access.
By pressurising systems to make inclusive adaptations, a clearer path can be paved for those who follow. Remaining highly committed to systemic transformation, Chaeli and ability activists like her around the world continue to seek justice and dignity for others who are disempowered by exclusive systems and the policies that fundamentally uphold them. Activism is an extensive conversation, but this has been a great start.
Follow Chaeli Mycroft on Instagram if you’d like to stay up to date with her work, travels and global activism. On her platform you can find details about “Conversations with Chaeli” – a webinar series to get everyday citizens, like you and I, thinking and talking about human rights. Follow The Chaeli Campaign on Facebook or Instagram to become part of our story.