Engineer, Author, Superhero – An Interview with Farida Bedwei, the woman who refused to be defined by her cerebral palsy.
If she had to explain cerebral palsy (CP) to a child, the first thing she would say is that it is not a disease. It is a condition in which the cerebellum, a part of the brain, is damaged. The cerebellum controls important functions, like hearing and movement.
Someone with cerebral palsy, therefore, may walk and talk differently, but their capacity to understand and learn is unaffected. “And with a little patience and time,” Farida would tell the child, “you could easily become friends and play together in the park.”
Farida was diagnosed with CP when she was one year old. In her case, the damage was probably caused by neonatal jaundice. She had a different sort of childhood; she spoke after months of speech therapy, crawled after years of physical therapy, and was home-schooled by her mother.
But by the time she turned twelve, she was at school and excelling. Eventually, she became one of Ghana’s top software engineers, founded a company, designed an application to empower the country’s microfinance industry…
and wrote a novel, and has just created the first superhero with CP.
Did you like superheroes growing up?
I loved them but could not find one with cerebral palsy, or with a disability to which I could relate. I thought it was unfair that children like me did not have a superhero representing them. After all, CP is the most common cause of childhood disability.
So you created your own: an archaeologist with the beautiful name of Karmzah. Tell us about her.
Like me, Karmzah has cerebral palsy. She gets superpowers when she accidentally breaks a jar her colleagues dug up. The powers go … into her crutches! She uses them to hop, jump, flip, and dive. She protects the weak and fights villains. She can even fly!
Karmzah can do anything she sets her mind to, it seems.
Exactly. That is the message behind the comic book: she may have a disability, but she is in no way weak. Weakness is finding excuses not to live up to your potential.
And what is heroism?
Surmounting whatever obstacles you encounter.
Who are some of your heroes in real life?
My mother and other fully involved parents of children with disabilities. People with disabilities who have to struggle to do things that come easily to others.
Your mother used to tell you to remove the words “I can’t” from your vocabulary and replace them with “I’ll try.” What are some examples of you doing that?
Learning how to pick something up with my thumb and index finger, taking my first steps with a walker then walking without an aid, applying for my first job, learning to walk again after a spinal injury paralyzed me …
Can you think of a time in which your disability was actually a superpower, as it is in Karmzah’s story?
Sure! There are a few perks I get by virtue of having a disability, and I make sure I enjoy them. For instance, I never have to queue for a public toilet; I just use the disabled one, which is usually empty. Also, when I am traveling, I am seated first on the plane before the others board.
On a more serious note, my disability also set me on this career path. I chose Tech because I was exposed to it at an early age as a channel for written communication. My handwriting was not good because of the uncontrolled jerkiness that comes with having CP, so I started using a typewriter to write letters, do schoolwork etc. Then, when computers became affordable to the average household in the mid-80s, I started using one, and the rest is history.
You are now considered one of the most powerful women in financial technology in all of Africa and have been named one of the most influential in business and government. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I developed a cloud software platform – Zigloi, that is now being used by hundreds of micro-finance companies nationwide to administer loans and track savings. The software allows these institutions, amongst other things, to send codes to their customers’ mobile phones, which in turn can be exchanged for money, making small loans available immediately and boosting the economy.
Impressive! And you wrote a novel, on the side!
I wrote Definition of a Miracle because I wanted to change society’s perception of people with disabilities.
We are like everyone else. We just happen to have parts of our bodies that don’t work as they are supposed to. But we have the same emotions and desires as others, and those should not be ignored because of our disabilities. That is another accomplishment I am proud of: sending this message by writing this book.
The book is fictional, but largely inspired by your own story. Do you consider advocacy for people with disabilities a personal responsibility?
I realize I am a role model for many children with disabilities and definitely use my personal experience and writing to advocate on their behalf.
What are 3 dos and 3 don’t you would tell a child with a disability?
Do push boundaries and see which you can overcome.
Do have fun, make friends, and try and live your life to the fullest.
Do set goals and milestones, so you have something to use to mark your progress.
As for the don’ts:
Don’t let your disability define you.
Don’t let the perceptions of others dictate what you can do.
Don’t feel sorry for yourself – this the hand you have been dealt, live the best life you can.
What scares you?
Getting an injury which will cause a retrogression in my physical state.
What are you looking forward to?