By Mahalia Cummings
Shameka Andrews celebrated a birthday yesterday, on New Year’s Day. Her celebration is a reminder that she defied stark odds. Shameka was born with Spina Bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don't form properly. “My parents were told that I wouldn’t live past the age of 5. And now coming in this new year I’m going to be forty years old. So to me that in itself is exciting.”
Shameka is a disability advocate and consultant. She provides workshops for people with disabilities, their families, and community organizations in the areas of health and wellness and self advocacy. Helping people with disabilities — and their families — get the resources that they need to live the lives that they want to lead. She coordinates wellness activities, increases participation of people with disabilities in their communities and runs Ms Wheelchair NY, which is an advocacy and empowerment program for women who use wheelchairs. “It’s all about helping women with disabilities being better advocates in their communities and make differences and have their voices be heard.”
Shameka’s journey may have started with self advocacy, but she always hoped that her actions would have a positive ripple effect for others. When she graduated from college, she was told that students with disabilities would not be able to access the stage and walk across it like everyone else. “They said that we usually pass them their diploma while they’re sitting in the audience. And I said, ‘I’m sorry, no disrespect to you, but I worked just as hard as every student in this school. And I am not going to sit in the audience while somebody passes me my diploma.’
Shameka loves to take walks, and refuses to let the breakdown of accessibility standards confine her or others. We talk about the issue of sidewalk accessibility. When the risk of using a wheelchair on an icy or unplowed sidewalk is too great, some opt to drive their wheelchair in the street. Sometimes, anger is drivers’ knee-jerk reaction, and this is representative of how the issues that people with disabilities face are often marginalized, or misunderstood. Shameka talks about the value of seeing the full human being, not a burden. “It’s not a disability issue. It’s a community issue.”.
Although she grew up in Downtown Albany, Shameka is now a citizen of the South End. She can be seen at local events, including protests at Ezra Prentice, AVillage Thursday meetings or Saturday morning Zumba classes. Her presence in the community is an embodiment of her practicing what she preaches through community development. Albany is one of the few cities to form an advisory committee to better enforce the American with Disabilities Act. “It can’t be up to one committee. It has to be the the community as a whole saying whoever I am, that I am going to do my best. Do my part to make sure that my little section of the community is as inclusive and supportive as I can possibly make it.”
Shameka is also a teacher of meditation. She loves to share the strength she has found through stretching her mind and body to the height of their capabilities, despite the external noise. “And that’s what this work has done for me in my own life, to really explore and be able to explore my own capabilities of what my mind is capable of and what my body is capable of.”
Shameka Andrews embodies self care as a radical force. She encourages people to love themselves as a rule, despite imposed limitations. “Most people before they meet me or even have a conversation with me have already decided what I am capable of. I mean from the day I was born — that’s how most people with disabilities are presented to their parents, with a list of things that they will never be able to do.”
Shameka is also an author.In 2018, she is keeping the door open for bringing readings of her books and other programs into schools, booking more speaking engagements, coordinating more health and wellness events, and continuing to share her story. Shameka’s children’s book, Butterfly On Wheels, is about a caterpillar on wheels who can’t wait for her wings. As for more the possibility of more books? That’s a door that Shameka has left open, and is excited to see what unfolds.
One quote she shares before a speech is this quote from Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. And I won’t let what I can’t do interfere with what I can.”