While Gabrielle McKenzie worked with students with disabilities in Guyana, she noticed an absence of curriculum about sexual health. She knew students in mainstream public schools learned about their bodies and didn’t understand why students with disabilities never had the opportunity to.
Even thinking about the notion that students with disabilities do not need to be taught about topics like consent, sexual assault prevention, and safe sex angered Gabrielle.
“What educators share with mainstream schools, they don’t share with special education schools because they feel like they [students] don’t need it, and I totally disagree,” Gabrielle, a disability rights advocate, said.
With the support of IFES and the Guyana Council of Organisations for Persons with Disabilities through the USAID-funded Youth Advocacy, Linkages, Leadership in Elections and Society (ALLIES) program, Gabrielle—along with another young man with a disability—designed, implemented, and conducted workshops at five different schools on sexual and reproductive health.
In conversations with parents after the workshops, they expressed both gratitude and regret that their other children with disabilities weren’t afforded the same opportunities and education.
“[A mother] came to us and said, ‘I wish this was around when my daughter was younger because she would’ve learned so much,’” Gabrielle said. “We even had a sign language interpreter, so everyone was involved and asking questions.”
Gabrielle knows all too well about feelings of exclusion and inability to access the same opportunities that are afforded to people without disabilities. When she was 17 years old, she became paralyzed from the hip down due to complications from surgery to fix her scoliosis.
A year after the surgery, she founded a Guyana chapter of the scoliosis support group called Curvy Girls.
“I wanted girls to know how serious scoliosis is and how to take care of themselves,” Gabrielle said, emphasizing that surgery—likely needed to be conducted outside of Guyana—is not the only treatment. “Parents need to look into this, and it needs to be treated correctly.”
Now, at 25 years old, Gabrielle is training to become an educator for young people with disabilities. She is honing her mentorship, leadership, and advocacy skills with IFES through the Youth ALLIES program.
Through the Youth ALLIES program, IFES works with a diverse group of young people to promote civic engagement, foster positive change at the local level, and increase their knowledge about democratic rights and processes.
“It is essential, the trainings on advocacy and public speaking, because I use them in my own work and what I want to pursue.”
Gabrielle’s impact is not only spreading through Guyana but now to the United States, where she had the opportunity to speak about her experiences at a panel hosted by the U.S. Department of State in partnership with IFES, ChildFund, Plan International USA, Futures Without Violence and UNICEF USA.
“I was quite honored, and I feel like having a person with a disability on the panel was very important because a lot of these programs benefit us,” Gabrielle said. “I was so happy to share what we go through, especially girls and women in Guyana.”
The Youth ALLIES program is funded by the United States Agency for International Development Eastern and Southern Caribbean (USAID/ESC).