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

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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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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