For most people the dream is getting to college, but for Irish American Anastasia Somoza it’s not getting there that is the issue -- it’s the accessibility that’s needed once she arrives.
After being accepted to the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE) to pursue her master’s degree in human rights, the New Yorker is fundraising so she can hire an aide for the duration of her studies.
“I feel strongly that my disability should not be the reason why I am not able to attend a fabulous university abroad,” she told the Irish Voice over a recent phone interview from her home.
Anastasia and her twin sister Alba were born with cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia.
“Most people have low expectations for individuals like myself and my sister,” reflects Anastasia. “We are not typically seen as people who can grow up and contribute to society.”
A well known advocate and consultant for people with disabilities, the twins’ mother Mary Somoza, who was born in Dublin, has been fighting for the rights of her disabled daughters for decades.
The determined Irish mother became dedicated to ensuring that her daughters received the same educational opportunities as others. Since the girls were at a young age in public school, Mary has fought for her two girls to attend regular classes and be exposed to the same opportunities as their counterparts.
“How many kids with severe disabilities get this chance of education?” Mary points out.
At 27 years of age, Anastasia has already graduated with a degree from Georgetown University. The smart and ambitious young woman tells the Irish Voice about how excited she is to get back to London to pursue her post-graduate education.
Anastasia uses a motorized wheelchair to get around and depends on an aide to help her throughout the day. Through a Medicaid waiver, Anastasia was able to bring her aide with her while she studied for her degree in DC.
Since graduation in 2007, she has been unable to find work. But instead has focused her energy on an internship with the Clinton Foundation. Anastasia and her family befriended the Clinton family in 1993 after she appeared at a nationally televised forum hosted by then-President Clinton, and asked him why her sister Alba wasn’t allowed in a regular classroom.
The appearance touched off an avalanche of publicity for the Somozas and advocates of rights for the disabled, and a lifelong friendship as well. Anastasia has served as an intern for Hillary Clinton while she was in the Senate, and the families have kept in regular contact.
It was Anastasia’s work at the annual Clinton Global Initiative that would inspire her to travel to London for a master’s, after striking up a friendship with Cherie Blair, the wife of the former prime minister of Britain Tony Blair.
An active campaigner on equality and human rights issues, Cherie asked Anastasia if she had ever considered studying abroad in London for her masters.
“She got accepted with a full scholarship,” said a proud Mary.
Anastasia was hopeful that, akin to her undergrad, her aide could travel with her to London for the duration of her studies.
“We worked closely with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on securing a waiver that would enable my aide to accompany me to London,” Anastasia said. But it was not to be.
“We got a call at 9 o’clock two nights before we left for London from the Department of Health in Washington, denying the waiver,” recalls Mary.
Not discouraged, the mother and daughter traveled to London in early September, determined to explore other solutions once they arrived. After two weeks passed, the situation was bleak, and they were faced with the long journey back across the Atlantic and a deferral for Anastasia.
But on the eve of their departure, a close family friend came forward with funding for a stipend (rather than a salary) for a volunteer who agreed to travel from New York and work with Anastasia until the end of her first semester in December 2011.
But again, it was not to be. Just a few weeks after enrolling in her two year course, the 27-year-old ran into difficulty with her aide. Cramped living arrangements and trouble with accessibility meant her daily needs were not being met, so in the end Anastasia was forced to return home and defer her studies until 2012.
“We had to fly over to England to rescue her,” recalls Mary.
“It was really sad to have to come back and to make that decision after so many miracles,” Anastasia recalled.
Once back in the U.S., the graduate decided to re-evaluate her choice to study abroad.
“I did have a moment when I questioned whether all the obstacles were worth it,” Anastasia admits.
“I re-examined whether there would be a program in the United States so I didn’t have to return to London, but I always came back to the original reason why. In terms of the academic program it was the best one for me.
“It’s the one and only thing that I am focused on right now. The goal in getting this degree is to position myself as more marketable. My long term goal is to start up a non-profit of my own.”
Now the Somoza family is fundraising to ensure there is enough money to hire two personal care assistants for Anastasia’s studies.
So far they have raised over $17,540 towards the cost of financing.
"We need much more than $30,000,” said Mary. "Every time we look on the website and it’s jumped up, we are all so excited.
“It’s like everything we have encountered in our fight to get the girls’ education over the years. At the time the problems seem insurmountable, however you have to do it.”