Close up … with Shamla Maharaj at the 8th UNESCO Youth Forum


Shamla Maharaj, winner of the Award for Merit for Youth Contribution in Trinidad and Tobago in 2010, is an inspirational youth leader. Despite being diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a young child, she holds a Bachelors of Science degree and a Masters degree, and in 2011 was named the country’s Social Ambassador. She was invited to the 8th UNESCO Youth Forum to speak about her experiences, and her words were greeted a unanimous standing ovation.

We caught up with her to find out more…

What lessons have you learnt from your work as a Social Ambassador in your native Trinidad and Tobago that people in similar situations around the world might find useful?

I earned the title of Social Ambassador of the Ministry of the People and Social Development in December 2011. I took it upon myself to use this accolade to help carry forward the work I have been doing all my life. The title has empowered me and given me a voice to be heard, not only on a corporate or governmental level but also at grass roots level. The media has played a key role in empowering me to open the minds of parents of children with disabilities along with youths who have no inspiration or path to move on in life.

I have also learnt through my interaction that the work done by governments and corporate bodies is not reaching the targeted groups. For instance parents of children with disabilities often seek information through me on if their child can get an education or available therapist and how they go about accessing these intuitions (I too never had the opportunity to receive any form of therapy).

Only when persons are directly in contact with marginalized groups in society are they receptive to receiving information; after all humans are curious beings. Therefore, marginalized groups need to be mainstreamed into society, especially persons with disability, so that all levels of society will gain an appreciation and understanding of these people in order to accept and accommodate these groups.

What do you think most people misunderstand about Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral Palsy is misunderstood at all levels from experience.  On a physical basis people perceive that all Cerebral Palsy cases are the same. Cerebral Palsy is damage to the cerebrum of the brain, and affects the motor skills. It affects each person who has it differently. From my experience I have been able to use the physical ability I have been left with and adapt to real life situations. The complexity of the physical disability is not seen in a glance. The mind and ability to think is not affected; it develops on a par with everyone else unless the brain damage is more than just the cerebrum.

People often misunderstand our ability to learn and communicate. Persons who are not directly affiliated with a person who has Cerebral Palsy tend to judge them based on their physical appearance, for instance being shaky, or on a wheelchair. Our emotions and feelings as a person with Cerebral Palsy are just like anybody else’s. Generally, our ability to contribute to society is misunderstood.

Do you feel like there are any unique challenges that young people face in the Caribbean?

Young people are conditioned to think that they need to quote the already successful in society and use these ‘norms’ to create their own success. They have the view that being innovative is creating something physical; yet innovation can be setting examples, such as simply mainstreaming marginalized groups and accommodating them.

In the Caribbean marginalized youths along with youths who are associated with marginalized groups are often stigmatized.  Young people class their peers in two groups: either they can do something or they cannot do it.

Why do you think it’s important for UNESCO to reach out to young people through events such as the youth forum?

The power of a body such as UNESCO can fill the gaps that governments of individual countries might not see as being imperative. Through this youth forum, they can set a path and educate through their work on how to include youths in decision making. This youth forum will empower youths and open their minds on what they can do to help young people from community to international level and can demonstrate the power of the youth voice and opinion as a decision making body.