Turning deaf has not deterred the remarkable Shirley Keoagile from following her dreams – instead it has spurred her on to greatness.
Born in Kanye 35-years-ago, Keoagile was a healthy, happy child, her zest and enthusiasm for life continuing unabated despite being diagnosed with a hearing impairment in one ear at the age of eight.
Forced to use a hearing aid for the next 20 years, she eventually lost the ability to hear in her other ear and was classified as deaf.
Emphatically proving that it is our abilities and not our disabilities that define us, last year she became the first disabled person inducted into the Botswana National Sports Commission
Today Keoagile’s profile makes for impressive reading – she is the Executive Director of Botswana Federation of the Disabled (BOFOD) and the President of the Paralympics Association of Botswana (PASSOBO).
Voice reporter Portia Ngwako caught up with Keoagile recently for an in-depth chat about her career and personal life.
Talking in a uniquely quiet voice, which is barely more than a whisper, here is what she had to say.
Q: You have enjoyed a sparkling career considering the setbacks you’ve had to overcome. What do you attribute your success to?
My life changed when I started working at Botswana Network of Ethics Law and HIV and AIDS.
They sent me to attend a United Nations (UN) convention on People with Disabilities, which helped me accept my situation.
I became more confident and started to believe in myself and my capabilities.
I was inspired and motivated to stand for my rights and those of other people living with disabilities.
I think I am where I am today because of my passion, hard work and also because I do not see myself as a charity case.
Q: Growing up, what were the challenges you faced?
The problem I faced at school was that before people saw me as a person they saw me as a deaf person – this is a stereotype that I still encounter today.
When I was diagnosed with a hearing impairment, the doctor advised me to sit at the front of the class.
It became a problem, especially with male teachers, because I had to look at them the whole day reading their lips and they were uncomfortable.
Q: Is that were your passion and motivation as an advocate for people living with disabilities comes from?
In whatever I do I am driven by passion because I want to see a Botswana that is better for everyone, including people with disabilities.
We might have limited resources in our office but that will not stop me from soldering on.
We want to see Botswana move forward and this can only happen when the voices of people with disabilities are heard.
I am also involved with the Paralympics Association of Botswana (PASSOBO) and because of my busy schedule I never really have time for myself.
I am very passionate about the rights of people with disabilities.
Sometimes people label us as angry and bitter but that will not stop us from talking because we also have rights just like everyone else.
Q: What is BOFOD’s mandate?
The federation was formed in 2007 to advocate for people with disabilities in Botswana for purposes of inclusion in all areas of society.
The mission of BOFOD is to enhance the welfare of persons with disabilities and enable them to play a meaningful role in society.
The Botswana government has not ratified the UN’s convention on People with Disabilities, which seeks to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities.
Basically it aims to promote respect for their inherent dignity and we will not rest until the parliament passes this important policy document.
Q: What would you say is your greatest career achievement to date?
For the first time PASSOBO managed to qualify an athlete for the upcoming Rio Paralympics.
This is the biggest achievement for us as an association.
It was not easy – we had to take Keatlaretse Mabote to Tunisia for classification of impairment because we do not have professional classifiers locally.
BNOC have been incredibly supportive, covering expenses for Mabote’s intensive training and preparing him for the major games.
This is the one thing that I desperately wanted to achieve because next year I am not standing for re-election.
I have done my part and I want to give others a chance.
Q: Who are your mentors?
The National Assembly speaker, Gladys Kokorwe and BNSC’s Vice-Chairperson, Tebogo Kesupile.
Mma Kokorwe is always there to assist and offer support whenever I need motivation or face leadership challenges.
I am the youngest BNSC board member and Kesupile helps me to be professional when I table motions.
It is very important because the executive committee is male dominated.
Q: Take us through that moment when you received BNYC Chairman’s Award.
That was awesome. When my interpreter told me my name had been called I thought she was joking until I saw my name on the screen.
I was very proud and felt honoured. That meant a lot to me and I realised someone out there recognises the job I am doing.
When I am down, I think of that moment and it brings a smile to my face.
Q: Botswana Association of the Deaf once complained of poor sign language used to interpret the news, as well as other programmes, on BTV as having become a major setback for the deaf. What is the solution?
It is still pending. We cannot even make a follow up on what is being reported on the news because the interpreters are distorting and compromising the information.
We do not understand anything and we miss important information.
Imagine when there is an announcement of power cuts or water rationing – It is not fair! We have asked our patron, former president Festus Mogae, to intervene.
BTV are imposing on us foreign sign language we are not acquainted with and there is a lot of distortion and confusion – the interpreters are benefiting not us!
We are not given the opportunity to choose the interpreters, we only see them interpreting for us without consultation with our Association.
We are advocating for sign language courses to be taught at the University of Botswana so that we can have trained professionals.
Q: Botswana will be celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence. How are people living with disability involved in the programme and preparations?
We wanted to be part of the celebrations but we have been left out.
We do not even have a representative in the Bots50 committee.
As people living with disabilities we have barriers and our level of participation in the community is also limited.
All we want is to represent ourselves not the other way round because no one will ever understand what we are going through.
Q: What support do you get from the government?
We want to be involved in the decision making process.
We want to have representation in parliament because it will be much better if we have someone who is in a similar situation to represent us.
Someone who is not disabled can never understand what a disabled person wants.
They might think that they know what we want and understand what we go through but it can never be the same.
Q: Now let’s get a bit personal. You are not married and do not have kids – is it because of your work commitments?
Not really. (Laughing) I have a boyfriend who is from South Africa but we have not yet planned to have kids.
I am the first born of a family of five and my siblings are my children – in other words, I am already a mother!
The other problem that we face, especially as women with disabilities, is in regard to dating because some men only want to date us in secret, but they do not want to be seen with us at shopping malls or doing things together, the way regular couples do.
I am happy with my partner – we get along, which could be because we have the same disability.
Q: How do women living with disability overcome this challenge?
To deal with this we have engagements meetings as women living with disabilities in which we talk about how best we can address those issues in our homes.
Some people even think that they cannot have kids or they won’t be able to have ‘normal’ children, which is simply not true.
We should have a relationship and people should be willing to know the kind of people that we are.
People should understand that we did not choose to be the way we are!
Q: Three words that best describe you?
Ambitious, Committed and Hardworking.
Q: Finally, thank God it’s Friday, what are you up to this weekend?
I am a member of Seventh Day Adventist so I will be at church.
After that I plan to visit a centre where children living with disabilities live.
I also like reading and this weekend I intend to finish the book I am currently reading, which is called, ‘Leading Women: 20 Influential Women Share Their Secret to Leadership, Business and Life’.