On November 6, Christelle Nadia Fotso, WCL/JD ’02, SIS/MA ’02, will lace up her sneakers, position her crutch, and take her mark behind the New York City Marathon starting line. When the clock ticks on and the crowd rushes forth, Christelle will take to the Empire City’s streets—propelled by a global community of supporters and the steady swing of her prosthetic leg.
“I want my race to be a call to action,” the attorney, author, entrepreneur, and Cameroon native writes. “Activist” may be the newest addition to her list of descriptors, but Christelle has assumed the role with full force. Not only is she set on turning heads and kick-starting conversations about inclusion, but she will walk as an ambassador for the Massachusetts-based Camp Shriver: a recreation program uniting children ages 8 to 12, both with and without disabilities.
Christelle’s commitment to 26.2 is emblematic of her persistence. Walking one mile is a 25-minute process, a hurdle she has cleared hundreds of times in her yearlong training process. “[Training] takes a lot out of you,” she says, but she is accustomed to setting a high bar for herself—to grappling with the “hard and...tough.” Her walk in New York comes on the heels of her participation in the Barcelona Marathon this past May, an experience she recalls as energizing and encouraging.
While Christelle’s actions inspire and create cause for celebration, she acknowledges that the conditions driving her activism are not happy ones. She walks to draw attention to the discrimination so many face in her home continent.
“Disabled Africans are invisible,” she says, describing how many locals consider disability a curse. She recalls hurtful comments lobbed at youth, such as, “God punished you...[and] your parents.” People with disabilities, she explains, are not invited to contribute to the public space, much less occupy positions of power. Many kids who are disabled are hidden away due to family shame, and in the rare instances when this does not occur, it is likely because of parents’ elevated education or wealth. “Tradition” and “money,” she shares, are too often wielded as excuses. Discrimination propagates.
Hence, her interest in Camp Shriver, which “makes the disabled kids feel like they belong” from an early age. She hopes African communities can look to this program as a model of inclusive excellence. Christelle acknowledges the work put in by the United States to build a more equitable society and instate supports for people with disabilities. She recalls the influence the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), civil rights legislation passed in 1990, had on her college experience in the US. No longer was the onus on her to communicate—and, in many cases, explain—her personal needs, a process she saw as draining and dehumanizing. “Because of the law,” she says, “they already knew what they had to do.” In terms of activists she admires, she motions to Tony Coelho: a major player behind the ADA’s passing.
And while progressions in policy can affect some change, Christelle still considers political work insufficient. In particular, how can people with disabilities see their needs represented, she asks, if so few hold seats in African governing bodies?
The root of disparity, in her eyes, is deep-seated stigma. “It goes beyond policy, beyond money,” she says. “I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to call for policy changes. I would say that I’m focusing on the urgency of integration.”
So, how can Christelle’s AU family help? “I need people to talk about it,” she says, and amplify the visibility of her cause. “I want people to go for it and to just not be afraid of any type of backlash, but to basically ask the question, ‘Why are disabled Africans invisible? What’s the shame?’”
It is high time, as she sees it, to put excuses aside. “It’s about the change in attitude.” It is about local, global, and compassionate integration of people with disabilities. Christelle reminds us that this is neither a cultural nor racial issue—but a human-rights one. When people recognize the mistreatment of others, she says, “the most important thing is to denounce it” and intervene to disrupt cycles of oppression.
As for NYC and the marathon ahead? “There is no bigger stage...to try to make [my] point [on],” Christelle says. “I think it’s the only way to force people to pay attention.”
Read more about Christelle Nadia Fotso and her marathon journey by checking out her recent Medium article, addressed to her younger self.