Shamila Akhtar has a clear image of how she would like people to see her.
As an unmarried Muslim woman from Rotherham, living with Multiple Sclerosis, she says she would like for people to see past her marital status and her disability and get to know the woman she is.
But Shamila is the first to admit that’s not an easy task.
“In Muslim culture, to be an unmarried woman living with a disability can be perceived negatively,” says Shamila.
“I don’t think the western world is all so different in that respect. There’s a lot of pressure and expectations of women in our society, to meet somebody and get married, and I think with a disability, people just expect that will be so much harder.
“When I was diagnosed with MS, I went looking for literature on the subject and found so little, it was daunting. I’m surrounded by my culture and what it throws at me, but I became determined to try confront these stigmas and change these views, especially amongst young Muslim children.
“I’m aware that people put boundaries on other people, based on what they think they know about them, and that’s not healthy. I wanted to speak out and change that.”
Shamila, from Rotherham, launched InspirAbility, a social enterprise in the region dedicated to raising awareness of disability through children’s books, with a focus on Muslim communities.
And Shamila’s first task, as founder and managing director, was to write a book that she hopes will begin breaking down barriers and destroying stigmas. The book, entitled ‘Allah Says I Am Able,’ is filled with advice from Shamila about coping with disability and not letting it take over your life.
“I sat and wrote the first book in just a few weeks and it came out so easily,” says Shamila.
“The ideas in it had been in my head for a while. After that, I was on a roll and I immediately began work on a second book, ‘My Journey to Makkah,’ which is a work of fiction, telling the story of the pilgramage to Makkah, which is quite important in the Muslim faith to do at least once in your lifetime. The book focuses on a group of characters, including a disabled character, and looks at their journey and the diversity of people they meet along the way. I really wanted to show that diversity and that disabled people are a normal part of our society - that it’s nothing be ashamed of.
“Both of these books are now available from InspirAbility’s Facebook page.”
As well as writing these books, Shamila also illustrates them and says she enjoys being able to pull her many different passions - writing, illustrating and speaking out about disability - together in one place.
“My passion for writing, and for InspirAbility, comes from my own diagnosis with MS and the fact that there is so little information available in my culture. I want to use InspirAbility to normalise these conditions.”
Shamila’s third book, which she’s working on now, looks at the ways people view disability and she hopes it will go some way to making it clear that ‘disability’ wears many different masks.
She says: “This book was inspired after I’ve spent years getting stick from people for parking in disabled spaces. They see me get out and walk to the shop and they think that, because I’m not wheelchair bound or hobbling with a cane, that I’m not disabled. They don’t see the inner struggle I’m dealing with in that moment.”
MS is a neurological disorder which affects around 100,000 in the UK today. Shamila says she does well with her disability day-to-day, though she does suffer with bad relapses that severely affect her energy levels, coordination, the operation of her bowels and bladder and her memory.
“I was diagnosed with MS in 2003,” explains Shamila.
“I’ve had some bad relapses over the years, including a particularly bad one in October last year. The worst part for me is when my cognitive function is affected and it feels like my brain just fogs out on me, but in general I manage okay.”
Shamila says her business gives her plenty of reason to get up in the morning, even on her bad days, and she has big plans for the future.
“I’ve done some work in schools already, talking to kids about perceptions, but I would love to do more of that,” she says.
“I think discussion is so important and I really want to be seen as a positive role model and to make a contribution in my community.
“I’d also love to see my books stocked in shops around the region and am pursuing that throughout 2016.
“Another thing I’d love to see InspirAbility do is establish a charitable and voluntary wing to help out in the local community. There are so many different things I think we could help improve for disabled people living locally - like I’m still surprised when I visit public buildings without handrails and ramps and I’m making it my mission to address issues like this.
“I think, as a region, we’re trying hard to support people with disabilities and I think, in general, people are quite understanding of our needs, but I’m always on the lookout for things that could be improved upon and the best ways to bring those changes into effect.”
Recently, Shamila was shortlisted for the ten most inspirational Business Owners by Instaprint and says the recognition went a long way to validating the work she’s doing.
“It feels great to be recognised and I was out of this world,” she smiles.
“It definitely solidified the path that I’m on and the cause I’m working for. InspirAbility is a new enterprise but I have big plans for it and I feel like I’m just stood at the racing lines now, waiting to go.”
Visit Inspire Ability Facebook Page to order a copy of Shamila’s books.