Life beyond the diagnostic

Two decades ago, a 12-year-old girl stood in front of a television and saw a commercial that changed her destiny. She was on a small house in Samaria, a neighborhood in San Miguelito and an ad announcing the special olimpics was on tv.

The images of kids running and jumping made Nitzeida realize, in that moment, that she had to be one of them. That day she talked to her grandmother, excited by the possibility. But soon, her excitement turned to sadness: surely those things were expensive, her grandmother said, and they didn’t have any money.

Now, just shy of her 32 birthday, Nitzeida laughs remembering that version of herself and how she waited for the right moment to arrive so she could escape her grandmother to find the athletes she had seen on tv. When she returned she was scolded but the people she met on that day, people that still to this day continue to support her, push her to do better. And of that she could never be sorry.

When she heard that Nitzeida could be part of the Special Olimpics even if they lacked the resources, her grandmother soon became her companion on the weekly Saturday trainings. Nitzeida soon took up track and, after a few years became interested in tennis and bowling.

A few seconds on tv had opened the door for a whole new world even if, at that moment, she couldn’t be certain just how different it would be.

The path towards no discrimination

Nitzeida, surprisingly, talks about about the hard times she has faced without struggling to find the words. She grew up knowing that her mother had left her in charge of a father that didn’t understand how to deal with his daughter’s condition and a grandmother that, up until the moment that she started practicing with the Special Olympics Organization, used to keep her inside the house and wouldn’t allow her to go walking to the nearest convenience store because the kids of the neighborhood would call her names. They didn’t understand what having a below average IQ meant and now, for Nitzeida, they don’t even matter: their hurtful words are just a bump in the road she has travelled.

Being an athlete of the Special Olympics has brought Nitzeida a sense of validation without which she now struggles to conceive her life. While growing up, the prejudice surrounding her disability came from neighbors and family members that left her with no choice but to retreat inside herself and face every wounding comment with a comeback of her own. But now, as a veteran of the program, there’s no trace of that conflicted girl in sight.

“A lot of athletes can say that they’re happy because of Special Olympics. I take the lead: it changed my life”, she says.

In the team behind the Special Olympics organization, that group of people that took her in when she was a 12 year old that had gone against her grandmother’s wishes, she found a second family. One that came to her life like knowing she would need it: in the last few years she has lost her mother, her father and her grandmother, who she loved most of all.

“Without the coaches we are nothing. They stop taking care of their families to come here and take care of us. That’s something that makes me proud”, she assures.

This past year she was appointed, alongside another 11 athletes with disabilities, as a Special Olympics Global Messenger. In Nitzeida’s case is her duty to represent the Latin American region and she will be participating on a wide range of activities this july in Los Angeles while attending the Special Olympics World Games.

Some of her responsibilities as Global Messenger include giving an important message to parents out there:

“Even if you have a kid with disabilities, you should say by his or her side: You don’t know why god chooses, you but that baby is not an obstacle to your life”, she explains with the utmost conviction.

She is sure that in an alternate reality, when she thinks of how her life could’ve been without this experience, she is in a small little room listening to the radio without ever having had the opportunity to discover that she could be good at something.

Because of that, she is sure that sometimes part of the weight of eradicating discrimination starts with the parents: they need to understand that their kid limitations are just one more trait, not something that stands in the way of them being happy or feeling useful.

Of fruitful efforts

In her case, her future was always mean to be inside a kitchen. The dedication that Nitzeida feels for cooking seeps out, almost without her knowing, when she talks.

Everything can be explained with an analogy that references food. Things that require effort are like when you “grind garlic” and everything that makes her work harder is always fruitful, like “when you squeeze a lemon: there’s always one more drop”.

Her grandmother started including her in the cooking process at home, first with the preparation of rice. As she grew up she started watching kitchen shows and any other material she could get on the subject.

Soon she was taking courses at the Panamanian Institute of Special Qualification, a center dedicated to disabled population, so she could take her first steps in the working world.

She has done almost everything. She carried groceries at the supermarket for 50 cents, washed cars and cleaned offices. She has never been adverse to work and she shares, like a secret kept from a society that still isn’t able to create opportunities for its citizens, that most people with disabilities are the same.

On one opportunity, she recalls with the coldness that can only be felt when we truly leave what hurts us behind, she applied for a position at a fast food restaurant and when she presented her papers the manager was quick to tell her that they “didn’t employ crazy people”.

She is currently studying culinary arts at the Interamerican University of Panama on a scholarship and, just last year, did her first internship at the Panamanian Presidential Palace where she was offered a permanent position in the kitchen. Her days stars way before 4:00 a.m. “While you sleep I’m awake throwing knifes”, she jokes.

She has traveled with President Juan Carlos Varela to cabinet council meetings and laughs when she recounts how a lot of Special Olympics athletes have approached her asking if she could help them find a job on a government institution. The desire to do better is there but they need the opportunity to show what they’re capable of.

Maybe that’s why she dreams of having her own bakery, one where she will only employ people with special needs. There isn’t any obstacle or sadness that lessens the happiness that lives in her voice:

“As they say in the hood, joy and happiness are what’s next for me”.

Work originally published in spanish in La Prensa Newspaper on July 25, 2015.