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“We showed we’re equal without even needing to say it” – Nikita’s story

Nikita Slate, 19, from Leigh-on-Sea, has always refused to let her visual impairment dictate her youth. But a three month volunteering placement with International Service ICS’s goalball project taclking disability stigma in Ghana presented opportunities and challenges she didn’t expect to face. Back in the UK, she’s now looking forward to a future in international development and disability advocacy.

I’m currently on a gap year, waiting to start my degree while volunteering with Age UK as a befriender, visiting old people in my community. I heard about ICS through school, and was encouraged to apply to the REACT project because of its focus on visual impairment.

Volunteer Nikita Slate walks with another volunteer
© ICS / International Service / Nick Adatsi
Volunteers like Nikita taught the Paralympic sport of goalball

It’s a cause that’s personal to me, having been born with two visual impairments. The first, called nystagmus, is an involuntary eye movement meaning my close up vision is fine, but I struggle reading small print and anything further way. The second, is ocular albinism, which means I sometimes need to wear sunglasses as my eyes are more sensitive to the sun.

I’m not nervous about my disability. I’m quite a confident person, and at school I never wanted to be ‘different’, so I just learnt to deal with it. It’s made me passionate about disability rights and I feel sad that there are lots of people who don’t feel the same way.

ICS wasn’t the first time I’d played goalball. When I was younger, I was part of a group of blind and visually impaired eight to 18-year-olds. But as I didn’t know the game well, it was great to have a refresher in how to play in York before we left for Ghana, and for the Paralympian Georgie Bullen to join us at the end of the placement for our final tournament.

Players celebrating after a goalball victory
© ICS / International Service / Nick Adatsi
Players trained by the ICS volunteers competed in a national tournament

Goalball is an effective tool for challenging disability stigma, but it’s not the only way. There was a lot more to the project than that. Other accessible games, including making resources and manuals for groups on how to play after we left, and awareness sessions we ran in person and on the radio were really successful in helping to change attitudes towards disability.

But my favourite part of the work was talking in front of the community. We went to neigbouring town Tolon a few times and met the chief. I spoke to 200 people about disability, trying to challenge their misconceptions that it’s a curse, that blind people are stupid. It really made a difference standing there because we demonstrated what we were saying simply by being there.

The final tournament at the end of our placement was brilliant. Everyone pulled together, and lots of kids came from the schools. Our fellow ICS team in Sandema had never played before – and they beat Ghana’s national goalball team! The volunteers were so happy and proud.

Nikita helps with the setup and refereeing of the match
© ICS / International Service / Nick Adatsi
Nikita discovered the power of sport in tackling disability stigma in Ghana

Through ICS, my misconceptions around developing countries have been challenged. I thought disabled people wouldn’t go out, but I saw so many who did, and could – though they’re just not treated the same as fully-sighted people. REACT was great in that we showed people that as volunteers, we’re all the same regardless of disability. We’re equal without even needing to say it.

Now I’m back I’ve noticed I’ve become a lot more confident. In Ghana I had to talk in a different language, in a different culture. If I can do that I can do anything! My ICS experience has really made me want to go into international development in the future, and definitely into more volunteering opportunities. Nowadays I’m not nervous about going out and making a difference. I can just do it. If I see injustice or inequality I feel like I could do something about it.

ICS changed my life. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Challenges Worldwide volunteers work with small entrepreneurs, like this yam salesman
© Andrew Aitchison / Challenges Worldwide

Ghana