Watching Michaela “Chaeli” Mycroft whirl around the floor in her wheelchair – beautifully supported by her ballroom dance partner, Damian – there’s an air of rebellion about her. The 21-year-old activist and student has always defied convention. Upon meeting her, she is in the midst of preparing for an impending climb up Kilimanjaro. She has since completed her ascent, becoming the first female quadriplegic to do so.
Chaeli has been shattering expectations since childhood. At 11 months old, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. A movement disorder caused by abnormal brain development during gestation, she simplifies it for us. “I have an uncooperative body and the messages don’t get to where they need to get, so my body doesn’t listen. I think that’s an easier way to understand it,” she smiles.
Despite having spent her life in a wheelchair, she exhibits an exceptional degree of empathy when discussing her work. Conscious of stereotypes and their lasting effects, she chooses to enlighten rather than condemn the uninformed. She calls herself an ability activist. “A lot of people refer to me as a disability activist, but I don’t see myself that way,” Chaeli says. “I focus on the ability. I concentrate on potential and empowering people to see their own greatness.” Discussing her activism, she is perceptive, thoughtful, and wise beyond her years.
At just 9-years old, alongside her mother, older sister and friends, she founded the Chaeli Campaign. What began as a fundraiser to purchase a motorised wheelchair soon evolved into something far greater. For the past ten years, the Chaeli Campaign has been providing vital services to the disabled community of South Africa, and Chaeli’s work in this capacity has been recognised globally. In 2011, she was awarded the International Children’s Peace Prize and in 2012, the inaugural Peace Summit Medal for Social Activism.
Through her advocacy, Chaeli seeks to cultivate a more inclusive society, one in which we engage and question, rather than judge. “It’s okay not to know everything,” she says. “People don’t want to ask because they don’t want to seem ignorant but we need to acknowledge our ignorance because it’s there. By not speaking about it we’re not dealing with the issue at all.”
A magnetic personality, she bounces back and forth between animatedly sharing stories with a captivated audience, to tending to her devoted service dog, Eden. She’s also very funny. Her interview is punctuated by persistent fits of laughter from both Chaeli and the crew. Sharp and quick, she almost never misses an opportunity for a punch line. ‘Do you like the person you are?’ someone asks. She appears stumped for a split second before, with a faux-serious face, she concedes: “Yes, I do. I think I’m amazing.” Then she cracks up laughing – but it’s tough to disagree.