A 25-year-old black, queer feminist thinker in Johannesburg is making history in a big way. That young South African is Eddie Ndopu, a disability rights activist who recently became the first African with a disability admitted to the University of Oxford.
Disability rights activist Eddie Ndopu has pushed boundaries all his life. At the age of two he was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy and doctors informed his mother that he had only five years to live. Once he reached the age of seven, however, he was determined to get an education and began attending regular school.
Today, his long list of achievements is extraordinary. In 2008, he was part of the inaugural class of the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg.
He later graduated summa cum laude from Carleton University in Canada, where he served as a research analyst for the World Economic Forum. At the age of 20, he was invited to attend a Master’s Tea at Yale University and, until recently, he served as the Head of Amnesty International’s Youth Engagement Work for Africa.
The road to Oxford
“I’m unapologetically brilliant, black, queer and disabled,” says Ndopu. “I dwell in the magnificence of my difference. It’s the stuff of magic. Receiving a scholarship to attend Oxford is unprecedented. Now I have a massive moral and political obligation to do something with my life. This is so much bigger than me.”
Ndopu leaves for Oxford on 14 September to study towards a master’s degree in public policy. Preparations leading up to his departure have been a challenge.
His condition, spinal muscular atrophy is a disease that causes progressive muscle degeneration and weakness. He requires the assistance of a full-time caregiver and an automatic wheelchair for mobility. While he was awarded a full scholarship, the University of Oxford didn’t take into account his disability-related costs.
Ndopu started an online fundraising campaign with the hashtag #OxfordEddiecated and managed to raise enough money to cover his living expenses and immigration paperwork for his nurse and caregiver.
“I’m absolutely delighted. There have been many challenges but thanks to individual donations and the various corporates who came to the party, I can continue pursuing my dream,” he says.
Fighting for equality
A staggering 90% of people living with disabilities in the developing world don’t have access to basic education. For this reason, Ndopu recently founded his own non-profit organisation called Evolve Initiative, which aims to look at how public policy can close the access gap for people with disabilities.
“There is a common misconception that people with disabilities aren’t full human beings. Our lives are often reduced to the basic notion of access. But it’s about so much more than access to parking lots and elevators. My goal is to help provide others with equal opportunities so we can all live our best possible lives,” he says.
He plans to mobilise resources and enter into talks with key stakeholders across the globe. After graduating from Oxford he intends to embark on a two-year journey that will see him filming a documentary about living with a disability and will culminate in him going to space.
“I would like to address members of the United Nations from space. It will be a documentary with strong elements of social justice and it will be very visual. It will have the same flavour as Beyoncé’s Lemonadevideo,” he muses.
He adds that it’s time for a paradigm shift and he is happy to carry the baton. “Living with a disability is the most courageous existence. Just getting out of bed each morning can be a challenge so I’d like to encourage society to affirm us as humans and give us the space to thrive.”