90% of children living with disabilities have never seen the insides of a classroom. I use my life to demonstrate to children with disabilities that they can become the protagonists in the story of their own lives. I have a voice and I get to use my voice in service of things that really matter.”
Edward (Eddie) Ndopu is an award-winning activist, humanitarian, and public intellectual. He has overcome several personal challenges to become a global advocate for people living with disabilities. At African Leadership Academy, he founded the Global Strategy on Inclusive Education, before going on to earn degrees from Carleton University in Canada and Oxford University in the UK. Today, he is one of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Global Advocates for the Sustainable Development Goals.
At the young age of 2, Eddie was diagnosed with a severe degenerative condition, called Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a genetic disorder characterized by weakness in the muscles used for movement. At the time, doctors told his mother he was unlikely to live past the age of five; this year Eddie turned 30 years old. He defines his life as a living manifestation of possibility. From the age of 7, when he entered a mainstream school, he immediately saw the value and influence his physical and intellectual being contributed to the widening of perspectives among his educators and peers.
In 2007, he learned about Fred Swaniker in a magazine profile, detailing his ambition to build a school to shape the next generation of African leaders. Recalling his mother’s words to him, that he would shape the world from the comfort of his wheelchair, he decided to apply to ALA. When he received notification that he had not progressed from the finalist round, he believed that someone had made a mistake and he a letter to Fred Swaniker, arguing that he had the exact leadership qualities that the institution was sought. After weeks of silence, he finally received a phone call from Fred and was offered a place at ALA, becoming one of the inaugural students at African Leadership Academy in 2008.
Global Strategy for Inclusive Education
In June 2009, ALA nominated Eddie for a speaking position at the World Economic Forum on Africa, which he attended with four classmates. After participating in this prestigious conference, Eddie was described by the press as “a remarkable young man [who is] severely disabled and confined to a wheelchair.” Rejecting that definition, Eddie founded the Global Strategy for Inclusive Education during his time at ALA as his student enterprise. Eddie and his teammates advocated for the inclusion of the more than 650 million people living with disabilities in the world at the time (the United Nations now estimates that about 15% of the world’s population, or 1 billion people, live with disabilities). Eddie’s advocacy was for a comprehensive policy reform and implementation, particularly directed at policy makers in the education sector to institutionalize inclusiveness. As a student, he inspired his peers to write letters to world leaders about the importance of an inclusive education.
When Eddie says that ALA changed the trajectory of his life, he means it. He fondly recalls the emphasis on critical thinking, learning how to analyze the world, and how best to position oneself in the world as core tenets of his ALA experience. By the time Eddie got to Carleton University in Canada where he undertook undergraduate studies, he felt adequately prepared to deconstruct societal issues in a constructive way. He then went on to attend the University of Oxford where he completed a Master’s Degree in Public Policy.
Advocating for the Marginalized
Eddie recognizes that the life he has lived is unfathomable for the vast majority of people in the world who live with disabilities. The vast majority of people living with disabilities across the world experience neglect and isolation; Eddie states that more than 90% of these individuals have never seen the inside of a classroom. Being the first African with a degenerative disease to graduate from Oxford, Eddie uses his platform to amplify the voices of the most vulnerable marginalized members of society. His goal is to show society that children with disabilities can be the protagonist of their own stories. He recognizes that there is a moral obligation to ensure that he does not just represent himself, but that he represents the millions of individuals whose voices are not heard.
Eddie believes that his activism is about creating a world in which all people regardless of who they are and where they come from are able to be and become the best versions of themselves. He works to create an environment in which individuals with disabilities are able to start out on an even playing field. In his words, “humanity is done a disservice when we fail to acknowledge the immense brilliance and potential that people have”. Activism for Eddie is about shining a spotlight on marginalized populations who have the ability to be brilliant and extraordinary if they are seen and provided equal opportunities.
United Nations Secretary General’s Sustainable Development Goals Advocate
Eddie identifies one of his greatest achievements as being appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, as one of the 17 global advocates for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a collection of 17 goals designed to unify global efforts to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. The committee is co-chaired by the President of Ghana, Nana Akudo-Addo and the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, and includes several other leaders across the public and private sectors. With this platform and the ability to speak about the toughest issues currently facing humanity to date, Eddie uses his voice in service of the progression of humankind.
Shooting for Space
Eddie’s next big project is more daring than anything he has done to date – he aspires to be the first visibly disabled person with a wheelchair to go into space. He sees his launch into space as an opportunity to make a statement of intent, challenging the world to accord individuals living with disabilities on earth with the same dignity that they would accord one who makes it into space. Eddie’s plan is to deliver a televised address from space to the United Nations in the audience of world leaders; he calls this his “love letter to the enduring power of the human spirit”.