Anne Wafula Strike MBE, who joined the Dimensions Board in January, is passionate about equality and the right of disabled people to be heard. She is an athlete, author, inspirational speaker and powerful advocate for the less fortunate in society. She has also spoken out in favour of the Covid-19 vaccine – largely on account of her own remarkable personal experience.
Anne was born in a small traditional village in Kenya. She remembers that the village was so far from a big city that the vaccines given to city dwellers never reached her rural community. So it was that, at the age of two, she contracted Polio which resulted in paralysis. “If I’d been vaccinated against Polio, my life would have been very different,” says Anne.
Disabled people in Kenya face many challenges, and in Anne’s own village people even thought she had been cursed. “There is a stigma,” she explains.
At the time in Kenya, families would often disown their disabled children. Some would be brought up by grandparents, while others would simply roam the streets. Anne’s father was different, though. “My father really helped me, he really believed in me,” she recalls. “He said I had a place in this world, that I had to work really hard and that I was born with a purpose. He really encouraged me.”
And so, despite the challenges Anne faced, she attended school, went on to university and qualified as a teacher. In 2000 she moved to the UK and took up wheelchair racing, becoming the first Kenyan wheelchair racer to represent her country at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. In 2006 she became a British citizen and has been a member of Team GB ever since. In 2014 she was made an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to disability sport and charity.
Anne says, “Being in the Paralympics has given me a platform to speak for myself and to help to amplify the voices of other people, especially disabled people. Everyone has a voice, but some of them are silent and so it has been a privilege and an honour for me to advocate on their behalf. So many disabled people are denied the opportunity to be heard and they are taken advantage of. I have travelled the world and seen how people with disabilities are always an afterthought when making plans and policies, but it shouldn’t be this way!”
Anne’s vision is for a world in which everyone is equal, and this is grounded in her strong Christian faith. She explains, “The Bible tells us that God creates each of us in his own image, and no person is better than anyone else. He sees everyone in the same way, and when we don’t see people as God sees them, we judge and we segregate.”
Looking back at the last year, Anne remembers that the hardest time was at the start of the pandemic when rumours were circulating that disabled people who were hospitalised with Covid-19 weren’t being prioritised for treatment. Some said that if there was a shortage of ventilators, they would be given to the able bodied first.
“Thinking that I could so easily be got rid of mortified me,” she says.
Anne has now received her first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, but she freely admits that she was nervous beforehand because of all the propaganda and conspiracy theories she’d seen on social media. “It did occur to me that maybe the propagandists could be right and the scientists wrong,” Anne explains. “The more you read on social media, the more confused you get, and it’s true that people in the black community are a particular target for misinformation because of past history. Vaccines and other drugs have in the past been tested first on black people, and some French scientists even suggested at the start of this pandemic that Covid-19 vaccines could be trialled in Africa first, so it’s understandable that people are nervous. But then I thought that the scientists and doctors are simply doing what they’ve been put here to do and there’s really no way that they could create something intended to destroy humanity.”
For Anne, it was partly her experience of being paralysed due to the lack of a Polio vaccine that made her go and get her jab. “I went because if my mother was alive, she would have been so disappointed in me if I didn’t. ”
Anne was prepared to suffer nasty side effects after being vaccinated, but she only experienced a slight headache and a bit of a sore arm. “The vaccine is the way we’ll get to that light at the end of the tunnel,” she says, before addressing those who are hesitant about getting vaccinated directly – “When you’re invited to get vaccinated, you should go. If you have questions or concerns, speak to the right people. Don’t listen to the conspiracy theories but speak instead to your doctor.”
Anne is now looking forward to the post-pandemic ‘new normal’, thanks to the vaccination programme. “I’m looking forward to shaking people’s hands again, hugging people, sitting and eating together with people from different households, seeing my nephew. We are social beings and we need to interact in person, not just virtually.”
Anne joined the Dimensions Board after a competitive selection process and is really happy with what she has seen of the organisation so far. “The people here are passionate about the people they support, and what really strikes me is that it’s not about one size fitting all, but instead every person is seen and supported as an individual. Such personalised support allows people to thrive.”
Becoming a Board member is, for Anne, just another way in which she is following her passion to “disrupt the norm”, as she puts it – the norm which used to be that disabled people were thought of as good for nothing. “Instead it’s all about empowering disabled people by giving them an extra helping hand. I am empowered through the support I’ve received from others – in fact, my first wheelchair was bought for me by my community.”