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No excuses in the pursuit of excellence: Cerebral palsy can’t keep Shamla down
A lot has been written about Shamla Maharaj. She was described in the Guyanese Stabroek newspaper in October 2010, for instance, as “one of a handful of physically challenged people in T&T who have successfully overcome the limitations associated with being physically disabled.” Maharaj has been a media darling—her story of fighting her way from rural Barrackpore in South Trinidad to the halls of the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, to graduate with a BSc in agribusiness management, despite the challenges of having “moderate to severe cerebral palsy,” is inspirational.
Her story never grows old, because as she continues to push past what others would consider hardship and limitation, there is always more achievement to add to her list of successes. Her goal has been to “live her life like a normal person” but her constant striving has made her extraordinary. Now 28, she works full-time at the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Corporation as a research assistant, while working on graduate studies in agribusiness management. She was given the title of Social Ambassador in 2011 by the Ministry of People and Social Development. In October 2013, Maharaj represented T&T at the Unesco Youth Forum in Paris, France, where her opening speech met with a standing ovation. She juggles writing her masters thesis with attending multiple monthly meetings held at both the Ministry of Gender and Youth Affairs, where she sits on the advisory council, and the Ministry of the People and Social Development.
She doesn’t charge for speaking engagements at private companies, taking her role as an “inspiration to others, especially parents of children with disabilities,” very seriously. The scale of her commitments overshadows the extent of the willpower and support required to achieve them. Diagnosed at seven months old with cerebral palsy, Maharaj, who has no control over the left side of her body, only has the use of her right arm. Her lack of balance means she cannot stand and needs to use a wheelchair. She also cannot control a range of involuntary movements, which gives her the appearance of constantly shaking. “When I was younger,” she says, “it was more severe. I had lost complete control, but it’s like through experience I learnt to cope with it and how to get things done.”
The experience she refers to, includes attending the Princess Elizabeth Centre, Woodbrook, from the age of four, during which she was separated from her family for weeks at a time, and where she was taught to be independent. At Princess Elizabeth, Maharaj had to wash and iron her own clothes, and make her own bed. She describes the separation from her family as difficult and the impetus for her pushing to go into mainstream education, so she could go home every day. But she concedes that dealing with a variety of personalities and having to learn to cope physically and psychologically with being separated from her parents was a positive. “I think had I stayed at home it would have restricted me,” she said. Even if Maharaj learnt many lessons about determination and self-reliance from attending a residential school, it is clear that her success rests on the foundation of a family who were prepared to go beyond their own circumstances to make that success possible.
“My father was a cane labourer, he worked for a minimum wage and was the sole breadwinner. My parents made a lot of sacrifices to ensure we got a good education,” says Maharaj, who has two younger brothers. “Once my father was told that I had a high IQ, he told Mum he wanted me to have a proper education.” Rajkumar Maharaj sought the information he needed to make that possible and got his daughter enrolled in the first of the three schools she has attended. “My dad would have to lift me physically from one transport to the next,” says Maharaj, who needed four taxis to get from Barrackpore to Woodbrook, and for whom there was no wheelchair-friendly transportation. “He would also hold my school bag and the bag with my clothes.” Maharaj’s mother, Chandra, was no different. When her daughter passed the SEA examination, and was given a place at Barrackpore West Senior Comprehensive, she was undaunted by the school’s protests over a lack of space and no desks, and demanded that they find space, as her daughter had been approved to attend.
When Maharaj had gained eight subject passes at CXC level and three at Cape, homemaker Chandra, learnt to drive so she could more easily transport her daughter to and from campus, and she also moved into UWI’s Milner Hall for the three years it took her daughter to complete her first degree. Maharaj recalls going back and forth between home and the campus, as her mum needed to ensure that her father and brothers were taken care of. She remembers sharing her campus accommodation with her mother as “good living.” The support of Maharaj’s parents was a constant in a world that changed with each milestone. At the primary level, Maharaj had to transition from dependence on her parents’ assistance with day-to-day living. At secondary school, she had to deal with teachers who were initially unprepared for teaching someone who was differently-abled, and with curious classmates who bombarded her with questions. At tertiary level, she was confronted with a lack of access to classrooms and having to make “swift relationships” as she needed to have her wheelchair lifted up three flights of stairs to be able to attend lectures. Once there, too, the desks were either too tall or too narrow for her wheelchair. This gave Maharaj’s mother another opportunity to hone her lobbying skills, eventually getting the UWI classes moved to the ground floor, but for Maharaj it reinforced some of the lessons she has come to live by.
“No matter the situation, I do what I have to do. I always thought of myself as an average student. I had to struggle but I always tried hard.” Maharaj, who never even believed she would be accepted at UWI, explains that her approach included studying from 8 pm until midnight, four to five times a week, and focusing on the subjects she found difficult. She balanced her studies with adequate rest and despite “hardly having places to lime,” would go the mall, cinema and 80s concerts with her brothers and cousins in her spare time. “With effort, I learned you could progress, you could get things done,” says Maharaj reflectively. She recently shared some of the other things she learnt with the staff at Maritime Insurance during their monthly achievement awards: “No matter what life throws at you, you can succeed, the value of your life is what you make of it,” she told them. Asked what’s next, Maharaj doesn’t pause or hesitate. She lost her father suddenly in January of this year and admits “it’s hard without my dad” but “as a family we are co-operating, we are holding our own.”
Her first trip overseas to Paris last year for the Unesco Youth Forum has given her the travelling bug and she plans to start travelling with her mum in 2015. Owning a car is a medium-term goal, and she has her heart set on purchasing a Toyota Hiace, which has accessibility features that will enable her to drive. Explaining that exposure to the world and in the media, has empowered her and shown her that “people consider [her] story an inspiration,” she is currently brainstorming business ideas with a friend, so that she can start her own business. “I want more time to help people,” she says. The only thing she is holding off on is a family of her own, which she says she will begin to think about once she realises the results of occupational therapy and has better control of her body. “I don’t make excuses and don’t understand it when people with both hands and both feet say they are depressed. I think to myself, if I had those, I would never be depressed!”