After losing the use of both her legs at the age of eight, Thato Mphuthi endured years of bullying and discrimination. Through her non-profit organisation, Enabled Enlightenment, she is making it her life’s work to help uplift disabled young people and educate society about disabilities.
“One day I woke up and was limping,” she says. “If more people realise how easily this could happen to them, I think it would do a lot to eliminate stigma.”
Mphuthi’s time in school was difficult, not only because of the physical barriers but also because some learners would taunt her and steal her walking aids. After multiple suicide attempts, she hit a turning point when she discovered poetry in high school: “It helped me express what I could not say.”
Through publicly sharing her poems, Mphuthi built her confidence, enhanced her public speaking skills and succeeded in making her peers and teachers aware of the great difficulties that she was facing each day.
At college she found herself in spaces where issues such as HIV, sexual health and gender-based violence were being tackled. She noted that disabled people were rarely considered in these discussions, prompting her to start Enabled Enlightenment.
Enabled Enlightenment’s main goal is to create a sense of belonging and confidence among the young and disabled population. “It’s tiring navigating this ableist society,” she notes. “So we hold space for one another.”
The NPO was created to focus on disability empowerment and justice, as well as Mphuthi’s other passion: reproductive health.
“I want to create spaces for other young people with disabilities to meet people like them, have conversations and feel normal,” she says.
Since launching Enabled Enlightenment, Mphuthi has used her love of public speaking to educate communities about what it means to be disabled in South Africa, the barriers disabled people face and how to meaningfully include disabled people in society.
The NPO posts webinars, provides sensitivity training for companies, and holds drives to gather supplies for underprivileged disabled people.
She has received a South African Heroes Award for her work in community development and has also been nominated for a Woman of Stature Award and for the JCI Ten Outstanding Young Persons programme. This year, Enabled Enlightenment has been nominated for a South African Heroes Award in the Specialised Care category.
Mphuthi also collaborates with other organisations to educate groups, including clinicians and social workers, on the intersection between disability and sexuality.
“Professionals need to know how to cater to young disabled people and understand that we are diverse,” she says.
Through her work, Mphuthi hopes to reduce the stigma around disability, include disabled people in important conversations and one day be able to influence policy.
“We exist and we matter,” she says. “We don’t want to be othered anymore — we want to be treated with integrity.”