“My Wheelchair Doesn’t Define Me”: The Amazing Girl Who’s Raised Thousands For Charity

Posted on July 2, 2015 in Disability Rights, GlobeScope, Society, Staff Picks, Taboos

By Pamela Eapen

You see the girl in the wheelchair, and you think, “Oh, poor thing. She’s disabled. Life must be so hard for her.
You walk right up to her, and then turn around and ask the person standing with her, “What does she have?” as though her wheelchair screamed that she was incapable of speaking for herself.

You hear she has Cerebral Palsy, and then you talk to her as you would to a toddler. You’re pleasantly surprised when she answers you with the intelligence of a twenty-something-year-old. You commend her on how smart she is, all the while thinking, “Poor thing.” You give her your pity with all the kind-hearted condescension that comes with having a fully-abled body.

nisha verghese
Nisha Varghese. Image source: Pamela Eapen

You don’t know that while you were dismissing her presence and the right to be treated as your equal, she was silently evaluating your character and finding it to be as shallow as every other person who looks at a differently-abled person and writes them off as helpless, mindless sheep.

You don’t know that she is one of the most intelligent people you will ever get to meet, because you were talking to her limbs instead of her mind.

You don’t know that Nisha Varghese, the girl in the wheelchair, the girl you pitied without knowing her at all, has probably done more for the good of humankind from the seat of her wheelchair than you’ve done your whole life on your two good feet.

Nisha Varghese is a twenty-four-year-old woman who lives in South Africa. She fundraises and works for charity, and blogs daily. She also has Cerebral Palsy, but she chooses not to let that define her. Instead, she is empowered by it. She describes herself as a “persistent, determined young person who NEVER gives up.

Nisha was 6 months old when she was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy – a group of neurological disorders that appear in infancy or early childhood and permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination. After being diagnosed with Scoliosis at 13, Nisha’s mobility was significantly reduced. “I was in special schools until Grade 8; and then I had my back surgery. After that, I was home-schooled.

At this point in time, Nisha’s life might have seemed drastically different to any of our experiences as adolescents, but she had the same anthem in her head that we all did: “I did not want to lead a mediocre life.

Her blog Who I Am details how she was inspired by the story of 11-year-old Kendall Ciesemier, and how God came into her life and showed her that “anybody can make a difference and change the world“. Previously having been convinced that “she could never do something so spectacular,” Nisha set out to do just that.

Though her family and friends were initially sceptical as to whether or not she could do it, she began her campaign to help people by raising $1000 for UNICEF – or at least attempted to. By her own admission, her first attempt was “an epic fail because I had no idea what I was doing“. But she took that as a learning experience, and persevered in her efforts to help people. She began her Clean Water For All Campaign. She is the proudest of this project, because it was the first where she was able to see the physical fruits of her efforts. One of the goals of her campaign had been “to prove to the world that anybody, even a nineteen-year-old girl in a wheelchair, could make a difference” – and when the $7 862 she raised built a well for a community in Kenya, she proved that nothing was impossible.

She started the Slavery Must End campaign, where she raised over $1000 for Not For Sale, an organisation that works against human trafficking. Then she raised another $1000 for the Elton John Aids Foundation in her Eradicate AIDS campaign. To date, Nisha has raised over $10,000 for various charity and humanitarian organisations.

Nisha is presently raising funds for her Educate Generations campaign for the Malala Fund. “I read about the Malala Fund in the book ‘I Am Malala’, and something about Malala’s passion for education moved me to action. Since then, I have come to realise that when you educate a girl, you educate generations.” She has raised $3199 so far, surpassing her goal of $2500.

She’s also been working on Virginia’s Sandwich Run since 2011 in honour of her late housekeeper, Virginia. With $3.35, she is able to make two loaves worth of sandwiches a week for the people in her current housekeeper’s neighbourhood.

nisha verghese with housekeeper
Nisha and her former housekeeper Nandipha, making sandwiches in June 2011.

Nisha says she has found inspiration in many different people while she looked for ways to help others. “My parents and siblings have taught me to believe in God and myself, and to reach for my dreams. Nelson Mandela taught me humility. Malala Yousafzai taught me courage. Catherine Constantinides, Angelina Jolie and Oprah have taught me that each one of us has the power to change the world for the better.

She’s also learned from the people around her. There have been times when she’s felt depressed or overwhelmed, but has realised she has a great many blessings in her life. “Once, my sister and I were waiting for my dad to pick us up from the movies, and this woman asked if I had Cerebral Palsy. My sister asked how she knew, and it turned out that her deceased daughter had CP. That woman taught me that everyone has a story. I felt bad for her, but I also realised that things could be a lot worse for me.

Although the general response toward her campaigns is positive, Nisha isn’t always met with the enthusiasm she’d like. “The best part of my day is telling people about my campaign and getting them involved, but sometimes I feel like nobody cares about what I’m trying to do – and it’s like I’m talking to a brick wall.” Despite the setbacks, however, she has persevered. “When I get other people involved in what I’m doing, I feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself.

Nisha says that the worst thing you can do to a person with Cerebral Palsy, or differently-abled, is to treat them as though they will never accomplish anything because of how they are physically limited. “The fact is that I can’t do some things by myself – but my worst experiences with people regarding Cerebral Palsy happen when people pity me without even knowing me. People should be aware that their lack of expectations of differently-abled people is detrimental to differently-abled people.

There are still certain things she thinks authorities could do to make life easier for differently-abled people, so that they don’t have hindrances at every turn. “The government could build special schools in every province and make it mandatory for every newly-built building with more than one storey to have lifts.

However, she’s remained steadfast in the face of discouragement and continues to think optimistically. “I now see that people are mostly good, and treat them accordingly. Some people come up to me and say the nicest things. I prefer positivity, but I won’t cry myself to sleep if people are unkind.

As for where Nisha sees herself in the future, “Working for the World Food Programme or running my own non-profit organisation.

Nisha has gotten where she is today by believing in herself – and she wants everyone to be able to do that.

I have realised that because I am different I have the world’s attention, which I can use for the good of humanity. If you have Cerebral Palsy, don’t let it define you or limit you. If you love someone with Cerebral Palsy, set high expectations for that person – they will rise to it.

You can contribute to Nisha’s ‘Educate Generations’ campaign for the Malala Fund here; or to ‘Virginia’s Sandwich Run’ here.