Empowered

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| This is the 351st story of Our Life Logs |


“Look, Colleen, it would be unethical for us to hire you as a disabled person, so unfortunately, we can’t offer you the position.”

I stared blankly at the interviewer, unable to comprehend the words she had uttered. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes while I mustered up the courage to respond to her.

After what felt like an eternity, I simply asked, “Unethical according to whom?”

 “According to our governing bodies to whom we report. They wouldn’t allow us to hire a disabled body.”

I proceeded to ask her who exactly were these governing bodies because I would like to have a word or two with them about their treatment of disabled people. When she finally told me, I thanked her and walked out of the building.

I wanted the ground to swallow me as I walked back to the car.

My thoughts raced. Oh my gosh, what just happened in there? I tried to make sense of one of the worst experiences of discrimination and rejection I’ve ever faced in my life. Do I call the newspapers and report this organization for their blatant discrimination against me? Do I call a lawyer and sue them for every cent their little organization made?

While these questions swirled around in my mind, I also had to think of what to tell my dear mother who sat eagerly waiting to hear how the job interview went.

“How did it go?” my mother asked excitedly.

“It was okay.”

I let my pithy response hang in the air for a second before I proceeded to drop the bombshell that I wasn’t even considered for the job because of my disability. I must have blinked a trillion times to prevent the tears from falling.

• • •

Being a black woman born in the predominantly white South African country of Zimbabwe—while also living with a disability in an inaccessible world—rejection is something I am familiar with; however, this was rejection like no other.

As we drove home from this interview in October of 2017, the interviewer’s words took me back to my 10-year-old self who was unwanted, isolated, excluded, and rejected at school because of her disability.

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Growing up in Harare, Zimbabwe, I had a “normal” childhood simply because my parents created a normal environment for me. Yes, I was different because I was born with spina bifida. From a young age, I required the use of crutches when walking long periods of time, meaning my physical activity was limited, but my parents nor extended family ever highlighted or emphasized this difference. Even the other children in my neighborhood of Msasa Park embraced my disability. They included me in the games we played on the streets and allowed me to be on the sidelines during activities that I was unable to participate in. At this age, all I knew was love and acceptance.

Towards the end of fourth grade, I remember walking into the family room one morning during the December school holidays, only to hear a life-changing announcement from my parents. I was switching to a local public school for the following school year which was commencing in just under five weeks. I had no time to emotionally prepare for what lay ahead of me. In hindsight, there was no preparation my heart could have done.

Before then, I had been enrolled in a special school for children with disabilities. I was surrounded by children like me. My 9-year-old mind could never have fathomed that there would come a time in my life that I would be rejected because of my disability. I was in for a rude awakening.

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Most of my December holiday of 1997 was spent making trips to the Ministry of Education for assessments and meetings to determine my suitability to enroll at this school. At the end of December, I was finally given the green light. After all the assessments and meetings, one would assume that the authorities there would have made the public school accessible for a disabled student, but no such thing happened. Instead, I was thrown into the deep end and I had to learn how to swim on my own.

My new teacher saw me as a helpless student. After just one week at the school, he announced that I was not allowed to participate in the school assemblies and hymn practice in the school hall. So, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a duration of 30 minutes, I was instructed to sit by myself in the classroom whilst my peers participated in their scheduled activities.

No other student in the school was subjected to this treatment except me. Because of this isolation and exclusion; the other students kept their distance from me both in the classroom and during break times in the playground. I felt so unwanted, unloved, unaccepted, and out of place.

My old schoolyard.
My old schoolyard.

A new reality set in after that year of school. I felt rejected because of my disability in ways I had never felt before. I knew my worth, I knew that I was loved, and I knew I still had a bright future ahead of me, but I also realized that I would be navigating the waters of ignorance and inaccessibility for the rest of my life.

And so, the years rolled by. I made kind friends. I experienced rude encounters. I turned down many invitations to attend concerts and venues simply because the area was not handicap accessible. I found people who saw me for who I was, and others who saw me for who I was not. And, more often than I can even count, I looked at myself after a very exhausting day and said, keep going.

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After high school, I opted to study psychology and counseling at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Upon graduation, I was bright-eyed and determined to help others, regardless of their physical and emotional limitations.

But then the job hunt began, and well, you know what happened. Prior to the job interview of October 2017, I had faced rejection countless times, however, I had never up until this point in my life ever had anyone utter such words to my face—at least, not since my first year in public school as a nine-year-old.

For the next few weeks, I questioned my existence. I hated my disability and felt it was the reason I had missed out on this opportunity. I felt like a failure who had wasted my parents’ money by attending university. In those weeks, I lost the will to live. I had no motivation to do anything apart from sleeping and crying until one conversation changed everything.

One afternoon I was scrolling on my Instagram account and came across the profile of my primary school friend whom I had not spoken to in a long time. I then reached out to her and shared what had transpired weeks before. She gave me a motivational talk that changed the trajectory of my life. My friend reminded that I did not need anyone’s help to step into my calling as a therapist, as the October job interview was for a therapist role. And that was when I knew I had to keep going.

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In the days and weeks to come, I began to work on my business plan, I researched how to make business logos, do self-marketing, I looked for office space…etc. I was on a mission, determined to prove that my disability could not stop me from working as a therapist.

Starting the private practice with no money was no walk in the park. There were countless setbacks to overcome and there were plenty of daydreams that just did not come true. Finally, after budgeting, many Google searches, and DIY business pursuits, I looked around my parents’ house and realized I already had the necessary tools to establish an office space for myself. I had a reliable internet connection and there was a spare outside room that I could convert into an office. I started working on putting suitable furniture in this outside room, all I needed was a desk, a chair, and a couch; luckily my parents had these that they wanted to get rid of. Start small, dream big, and keep going.

My humble beginnings.
My humble beginnings.

By mid-July of 2018, I was fully operational. And while there have been quiet months of low client traffic, the positive experience of being self-employed outweighs the current challenges I am facing. Being able to go on a therapeutic journey of healing with a client and witnessing their transformation and healing has been a truly rewarding experience, one that I would never trade for anything.

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My official business logo!

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On my journey, I gained these valuable lifelong lessons:

Rejection is a part of life.

Rejection will not kill you.

Rejection should never stop you.

Rejection is a stepping stone.

Keep going.

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This is the story of Colleen Chifamba

Growing up in a loving and inclusive community in Harare, Zimbabwe, Colleen did not feel as if her spina bifida deterred her from a bright future. However, upon moving to public school in fifth grade, her teacher barred her from many activities which caused her peers to isolate her. Keeping her head up, Colleen went on to obtain her graduate degree in psychology and counseling. But when an interviewer turned her down for a position as a therapist due to her disability, Colleen went on to open her own practice.

Colleen is an international award-winning blogger and disability advocate. Her blog, Life Through the Disability Lens, aims to change the reader’s perspective of disability through her honest and thought-provoking blog posts. Most of her writing is based on either past or day to day experiences of the world as a black woman with a disability. Her story of overcoming rejection is one that encourages readers to always rise above any rejection despite life circumstances. Colleen currently resides in Zambia.

Colleen 2019
Colleen, 2019.

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This story first touched our hearts on May 23, 2019.

| Writer: Colleen Chifamba | Editor: Colleen Walker |

 

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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