Eddie Ndopu wasn’t expected to live past 5 years old. Now, the 27-year-old South African hopes to be the first person with a disability to travel to space.
Eddie Ndopu describes himself as “black, queer, disabled and brilliant.”
“I embody all of the identities that position me at a disadvantage in society,” he told NBC News. “But I am turning that on its head.”
By the end of the year, the 27-year-old South African hopes to become the first person with a disability to go to space.
When Ndopu was 2 years old, he was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), an incurable condition that causes progressive muscle degeneration and weakness. His prognosis was devastating: His family was initially told he would not live beyond the age of 5.
But a tenacious Ndopu said it wasn’t long before he was able to “outstrip and outlive all expectations,” both academically and medically. He attributes this in part due to his mother, whom he said never gave up on him or stopped fighting for him.
Ndopu said when he was 7 years old and living in Namibia (he moved to neighboring South Africa when he was 10), his mom came home to find him sitting in front of the television staring despondently at a blank screen. “She held my head in her hands and begged me to tell her what was wrong,” Ndopu recalled.“Finally, I told her all I wanted was to go to school.”
Despite inclusive education laws, growing up disabled in southern Africa meant a mainstream education was never guaranteed. In fact, a 2017 United Nations report revealed that even today, 90 percent of disabled children in developing countries never see the inside of a classroom.
But Ndopu said his mom is a “fearless warrior” who knocked on “every door” until finally he was accepted to a small elementary school on the outskirts of his hometown.
Ndopu has so far outlived his prognosis by more than two decades, and last year he became the first African with a disability to graduate from Britain’s prestigious University of Oxford. The disability-rights activist, who admits he has a weakness for lipstick and fashion, said he is “a living manifestation of possibility.”
Now Ndopu, whose disease has left him unable to walk, has set himself a new “audacious” goal: to become the first person with a disability to go to space.
Backed by the United Nations, he hopes to deliver “the speech of [his] life,” championing disability rights from a space shuttle to the UN’s New York headquarters this December.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a South African lawmaker and the executive director of UN Women, told NBC News if Ndopu attains his goal, it would be “a powerful symbol to demonstrate that people with disabilities can break barriers.”
“By reaching space,” she added, “it clearly demonstrates that determined disabled people, in an enabling environment, can excel like anyone else.”
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