Ming Canaday – Championing physical disability rights

“I don’t want to inspire people. ‘Inspiration’ is a word that disabled people hear a lot. And it’s a positive word to you. But to us, it’s patronising,” American disability activist Ming Canaday was quoted as having said in an interview by Human’s of New York.

“I am not living a wonderful life for a disabled person. I am living a wonderful life, period.”

Ming is not only an extra-ordinary woman that overcame all sorts of discrimination as a person with disability, but also a strong human being that advocates for equity and justice for people with various disabilities.

Through Traipsin’ Global on Wheels (TGOW), an organisation she established in August 2018, she also helps individuals with disabilities know how to access information and inquire about fitness.

And her Malawi visit recently when she engaged with other people with physical disabilities, especially young people, proved worthwhile and by sharing her own story of overcoming disability and fighting for equality, she encouraged them to fight their own battles and make good use of every opportunity at their disposal to succeed in life.

Ming also held meetings with the Malawi Council for the Handicapped (Macoha), Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi (Fedoma), Malawi National Association of the Deaf (Manad) and other groups, discussing policy issues that can help improve lives of people with physical disabilities in the country.

But the 30-year-old was not tackling these issues out of the blues; her real life experience as a child at an orphanage in her land of birth China taught her big lessons on the challenges that people with disabilities face.

She was abandoned on the streets of Chenzhou by her biological parents when she was just four years old due to her polio and scoliosis that made her unable to walk before being picked by the Chinese city’s welfare centre after two days of homelessness.

The next eight years she lived at an orphanage in a section specifically set aside for children with disabilities.

At the facility, such children did not go to school, but helped with chores and “sitting around in dreary boredom”.

Caretakers at the orphanage ignored the children as they fought with each other and Ming was once hit with a chair after stealing meat from a cupboard.

The time she got an opportunity to go to school was only after an American family (Pamela and Clifton Canaday) adopted and moved her to Oregon, USA at the age of 11 in 2001.

The American couple adopted Ming after reading about her in an article that director of international programmes at an adoption agency Journeys of the Heart David Slansky wrote about what he saw when he visited the Chenzhou Welfare Centre.

She enrolled in school for the first time as a fifth-grader and taught herself to read and write Mandarin while learning English.

Later in 2009, Chinese Flagship Programme awarded her partial scholarship to enroll at Oregon University (OU), where she obtained three degrees—Chinese, Asian Studies, and International Studies.

Ming added a graduate certificate in disability studies from the City University of New York.

“Studying was my priority and everything else came second,” she was quoted as having said on OU alumni website www.uoalumni.com.

Upon graduating at OU in 2013, Canaday worked as a linguist for TransPerfect, as a volunteer recruiter for the Community Service Society and as an intern at Human Rights Watch’s disability rights division, where she attended United Nations (UN) conferences, wrote articles and helped with research.

After that, she enrolled at the London School of Economics to get a master of science degree in the history of international relations. She graduated in 2016.

“While in London, Ming began playing basketball and traveled throughout Europe and even made a trip to South Africa where she studied emerging powers in Africa and conducted interviews for her dissertation on the changing attitudes towards Chinese migrants in South Africa,” the website explained.

Recently, she designed a curriculum for a vocational school in China to teach English and American culture to students with disabilities.

When she met Macoha members at Malawi Sun Hotel in Blantyre, Ming said it is the challenges she faced as a child with disability and her observation of what such people are experiencing around the globe that prompted her to found TGOW in 2018.

“I came to Malawi to contribute to disability advocacy; ensuring knowledge and learning more about the challenges people with disabilities face. I feel there is a lot that needs improvement on disability advocacy development as regards to information exchange,” she said.

Ming said within the few days she spent in Malawi— her second African country she has so far visited after South Africa— she has also observed that disability-friendly infrastructure is hardly available.

“As a person with mobility challenges, I have not seen side-walks, elevators and easily accessible bathrooms. Lack of such basic amenities makes it hard for people with disabilities to conduct their lives in an independent and dignified manner in areas of education, employment and business. This even becomes worse for women,” she said.

“Attitude towards people with physical disabilities also needs to change for the better. It is not on to treat us as people who have committed sins in previous lives to have disability. I have heard about stories of people with albinism being murdered for rituals. This is barbaric because we are all human beings with equal rights.”

In spite of that, the American advised people with disabilities in the country not to look down upon themselves as failures, but work hard in studies, employment and businesses to succeed in life.

“If the whole society decides to move forward by not looking at disability as a curse, the world will be a better place to live in for everybody. People with disabilities should also be courageous enough to chase opportunities no matter how difficult they might be,” she said.

Macoha executive director Georgina Navicha said Ming’s visit helped local organisations that deal with people with disabilities to fight challenges they face with united purpose.

She, however, said financial constraints make it difficult for local organisations to effectively advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

During her visit, Ming also visited Zomba before meeting government officials in Lilongwe and visiting Dzaleka Refugee Camp.

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