The funeral of Zahrah Manuel was a true celebration of life. Zahrah died suddenly at the age of 22. She had endured cerebral palsy for all her life yet during that time with the support of her mother Preethi lived life to the full.
Life though was a struggle, not so much in terms of the cerebral palsy but the way in which our increasingly inhumane society reacted. Preethi has been a devoted mother to her daughter, giving up her career and committing her life to getting the care support needed on a daily basis. She has also had to fight for her daughter’s most basic rights.
The first battle was to get into a primary school. The school had been adapted for disabled people but did not want Zahrah. A sit in by 25 people at the education authorities offices in Camden helped ease the way to Zahrah being accepted.
A similar thing happened come the time for secondary education. Again Preethi fought the battle this time going to the high court after the school her daughter was going to turned her away on the first day, saying they were unable to cope.
They again won but Zahrah decided she did not then want to go to a school that so clearly did not want her. Instead another school that was most inaccessible, spent over £100,000 adapting their premises so that Zahrah and other disabled children could attend. The head and staff at this school clearly understood what sanctity of life really meant in practical terms.
Preethi and Zahrah’s battles really centred around the right to be included. One individual in the opposition camp on inclusion is Prime Minister David Cameron. Mr Cameron opposes the idea of inclusion, preferring instead that disabled people be treated seperately, so are educated together in special places. Preethi publically challenged Mr Cameron to come and meet Zahrah but he never took up the opportunity.
Inclusion of disabled people is such an important issue that goes to the heart of our humanity. It shows people care and have solidarity with one another. It sets us apart from the jungle. Seperating people out marks a backward step to the world of asylums and locking people away, who don’t fit in with societal norms.
People with disabilities in the view of society also have amazing abilities. World renowned theoretical scientist Professor Stephen Hawkings has suffered with cerebral palsy all of his life, yet has a brilliant mind. Had Hawkings been shepherded off to an asylum at an early age, the world would be a far more ignorant place in terms of the understanding of the workings of the solar system.
Kim Peak, who died last December, was a savant with a truly remarkable memory. He could read and memorise books. His abilities became known internationally with the story of his life, played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man.
The life of Kim Peak marked another move forward for people of disability. His life could have been very different if it were not for his father Fran. When Kim was a child his condition was known as “idiot savant” which in those days meant he would spend the best part of his life in a mental institution. But Fran was not going to let this happen and became his son’s primary carer and guide through life.
Preethi played a similar role for Zahrah, devoting her life to that of her daughter. The battles that they won together have moved things forward for disabled people across the UK.
It is important to remember that despite commentary to the contrary we live in a quite ignorant and intolerant world. The gains for disabled people have been achieved by the hard struggle of the likes of the Manuel, Peak and Hawkings families. The advances do not come about because some government minister or think tank suddenly decide it is the right thing to do. In this world, rights have to be fought for, won and then defended.
Zahrah may now have passed on but the number of friends and relations who attended her funeral are testimony to the fact that she will never be forgotten. Others who have never known her will owe much in terms of the quality of life that they are able to enjoy.