The inspirational woman whose wheelchair has not bound her spirit

Rita Vella Borg has been recognised in the past for her strong personality but she was still surprised when her profile was raised to one of 12 Women Inspiring Europe, broadening her reach way beyond Malta, despite the fact she is bound to a wheelchair.

She won the competition, organised by the European Institute for Gender Equality in Vilnius, Lithuania, which aims to give more visibility to some of Europe’s outstanding women and their achievements to serve as inspiration.

Being nominated by the Maltese affiliate of Soroptimist International was already enough and Ms Borg Vella said she did not really consider being shortlisted from among over 100 candidates from Europe to appear in a 2011 calendar that will feature the chosen women.

The chair of the Muscular Dystrophy Group, herself a sufferer of the disease, she was recently shot by a professional photographer from Lithuania. It took him hours to set up the shot and transform her kitchen into a studio to snap her portrait.

The 37-year-old model for a day still does not know what month she is representing but was pleased with the end result and is sure to hang the calendar in a prominent position. In her more serious role as president of the group, and vice president of the National Commission – Persons with Disability, Ms Vella Borg’s aim is to ensure people with disability can be involved in every aspect of life, from education to work.

Her motto is: With the necessary help, you can do what you want! Whatever your disability, you can follow your dreams.

“I try to facilitate the lives of persons with disability. We need to support each other,” she insists. Access remains the major problem for people with disability, particularly in the leisure sector. “It seems they think we don’t want to have fun,” she laughs, pointing out she has to call to check if there are stairs to a venue and that the lift often turns out to be too tight.

Despite her apparent limitations – she stopped moving her hands at 16 – Ms Vella Borg strongly encourages self-sufficiency and is a good example of independent living.

“I was fortunate but I also fought for it,” she insists. Today, she lives with her husband of four years, also suffering from muscular dystrophy and wheelchair bound, with the assistance of 24-hour care. They got to know each other through the disease about 13 years ago and have supported each other since.

A staunch advocate of independence, she is most irked by over-protection and the imposition of assistance.

“Parents are right to worry about children who have this condition. I myself used to fall a lot while I could walk until I was 11. But when they grow up, they need to let them be and allow them to take their own decisions.” Ms Vella Borg was diagnosed with the disease at eight.

She stopped walking three years later and by the age of 16 she stopped moving both her hands. But that has not stopped her from living and she can write, use a computer and even paint – using her mouth.

“I had lots of pen friends, so when I could not write anymore I put a pencil in my mouth and learnt very fast.

“Painting is the only thing I can do completely alone from start to finish,” she points out, showing her works – and sense of satisfaction.

“More than Europe, I want to inspire other persons with disability,” Ms Vella Borg says of her latest title. She is pleased about the award but her disability means she cannot take for granted her presence at the important ceremony in Brussels next month to launch the calendar.

Flying is a “big hassle” for persons in her position and she would have to undertake the journey overland, meaning it would take her four days to go and another four to return.

For Ms Vella Borg to travel, she needs two helpers and a driver. That is more than the organisation has on offer – a flight and two nights’ stay in Brussels. Moreover, they would have to stay in accommodation that caters for persons with disability and these are usually four and five star hotels.

“We cannot go cheap and stay in hostels because they are not equipped,”

Ms Vella Borg says, pointing out that “we complain about Malta but things are not much better abroad”. Nevertheless, she and her husband, who also have to sleep attached to ventilation and oxygen machines, are not put off. They are trying to sort out the extra costs and see how to get to this important appointment together.

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