Maria Alexandrova is 21-year-old Inclusive Education Advocate from Bulgaria who lives with Cerebral Palsy.
In 2018, she successfully challenged the University of Cambridge to adapt its Advanced English examination to her specific needs, becoming the first person with Cerebral Palsy in Bulgaria to ever try and successfully take the exam.
Maria currently studies Journalism and Mass Communication, alongside Political Science and International Relations. She is a UNICEF Bulgaria Youth Advocate and a U-Reporter.
This World Children’s Day, we celebrate Maria’s efforts to create a world where everybody is “accepted as they are” with an illustration by Njung’e Wanjiru. Here, Maria reflects on what inclusion means to her and why she advocates to promote it.
I am Maria Alexandrova, a university student, a U-Reporter, a writer, and most importantly, a UNICEF Inclusive Education Advocate. Outside of the standard introduction I wanted to start this blog by sharing with you some integral parts of my identity, because one’s identity is intrinsically related to the idea of inclusion.
For me, inclusion is about accepting people as they are – with all their unique experiences, abilities, and traits – while also providing them with the tools and environment to reach their full potential. This task seems rather daunting, doesn’t it? People usually believe that inclusion is only dependent on policymakers and global organizations. I believe, however, that everyone can contribute to making the world more inclusive.
My own journey towards that goal is a really difficult one to describe. I have Cerebral Palsy, a disability which really limits mobility and makes me a wheelchair user. Due to the fact that persons with disabilities are consistently underestimated in my country, especially when it comes to being valuable members of society, I have had to constantly be my own advocate. Growing up, I watched my mother deal with discriminatory remarks and inefficient institutions with a level of integrity and grace I truly hope to emulate. She is at the crux of what I do now.
My first personal battle and cause was related to the education system. I experienced the consequences of societal misconceptions around disability, both with my teachers and peers. I fought hard to be the first wheelchair user in Bulgaria to sit the Cambridge Advanced English exam. Through this achievement I got connected with the UNICEF Bulgaria office and started my advocacy to ensure children and youth with disabilities had easier access to education opportunities.
As I was sitting that exam, I knew right then and there than no person with disability should experience what I had to go through. I inadvertently found my purpose. This has also led me to becoming a member of the first-ever Youth Sounding Board, established by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for international Partnerships. Through this membership, I, along with 24 other youth activists, can advise the organization on its youth policy.
That being said, no person should ever have to earn a basic human right, such as education. It must be granted. Despite the hardships I have gone through, I recognize that I am extremely lucky to have had a strong support system, a secure legal identity, and the right to go to school. The sad reality is that children with disabilities are 49% more likely to have never attended school – a statistic I had the chance to point out to the UN Secretary General during the recent Transforming Education Summit.
Data like this only shows the need for the inclusion of all marginalized groups in all aspects of society. Because young people deserve to inherit a more diverse and just world. We are the key to that better future. In that vein, inclusion is more than a buzzword. It means ensuring our participation in decision-making at any and all levels.
This World Children’s Day, let us all remember what we can do to empower the next generation of young people. Even the smallest actions can have a larger impact. I urge policymakers and stakeholders to put young people first, regardless of their identity, and to please remember - we want to be active participants in what comes next. As for the youth, I ask you to continue fighting for the change you want to see in the world. It is truly in our hands.