PEOPLE OF 2020: Mata'afa Fa'atino Utumapu

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of marginalised populations around the world including those living with disabilities. 

And it is no different in Samoa but the work of Samoa Nuanua O Le Alofa (N.O.L.A.) and its head Mata’afa Faatino Utumapu is helping to cushion the impact.

N.O.L.A., the country’s national advocacy organisation for persons living with disabilities, is navigating the myriad of challenges that have surfaced this year as it reached out to persons living with disabilities.

The N.O.L.A. General Manager, Mata’afa Faatino Utumapu is optimistic despite the challenges that came with a coronavirus-inspired state of emergency (S.O.E.) and its accompanying restrictions.

She said 2020 was her most challenging year in terms of her job as the General Manager of the organisation.

"We were able to engage with some organisations who have and continue to work to improve access to specific services for persons with disabilities like reproductive health and rights,” she said. “Despite the challenges left right and center, we have achieved great results and I think that it is a result of effective and efficient partnership with our stakeholders both at local, national and at regional level.”

Living during a pandemic also had its challenges with Mata’afa revealing that she was not only faced with the challenges of trying to mobilise resources, but also ensuring that persons living with disabilities are able to engage in dialogue and making sure that they are not left behind in the face of COVID-19 restrictions.

She said the S.O.E. restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic saw the N.O.L.A. reach out to their members with assistance. The assistance was made possible through partnerships with the Australia Pacific Training Coalition (A.P.T.C) and the Civil Society Support Programme.

Mata’afa added that this was a pathway to get education and employment in the future and they recognised that for anyone to be employed, literacy and numeracy courses are the key to success and persons living with disabilities should not be left behind in terms of accessing these services.

“On top of that we have secured partnership with [National University of Samoa] of course who will offer scholarships with persons with disabilities in the area of TVET,” she added. “Not only that but at the national level, we continue to provide information and communication in accessible format about COVID for our persons with disabilities in rural areas, especially for those who are deaf and hearing impaired for the first time, all the messages related to COVID and improving the life of the nation are interpreted.”

N.O.L.A. also has a partnership with other donor agencies like the Disability Rights Fund, which Mata’afa says continue to support subgroups within the organisation, to advocate for themselves and their issues.

“I guess, for any success, there is an indication of a collective effort by those who have directly and indirectly involved so for me in this case, some of the contributing factors are of course persons with disabilities themselves,” she added.

“And as without their challenges and their issues, which have and continued to motivate me to work hard and to advocate so that our issues and voices are heard. You know we wouldn’t have come so far without them.”

But the persistence and commitment to the cause by Mata’afa, often in the face of adversity, confirms how the support of her family including her parents is crucial to ticking the boxes for N.O.L.A. as an organisation.

“My own church recognises me for who I am and the contribution that I can make to the church, not for what I have. I have role models within the disability sector who work from abroad to continue to support me to do great things,” she said.

“Some of the contributing factors are the recognition of persons with disabilities themselves by the wider community, as contributing people to the society, you know that really motivates me to do more and you know reach out to those who are in need. 

“The strength of the subgroups of Nuanua O le Alofa continue to be one of the contributing factors for me to keep on doing the work I’m doing because I continue to see the good fruits. “Let’s not forget that in any good work there are also challenges but I guess for me it’s with those challenges which continue to help me shape my thinking and to help me build myself to the person I am today.”

Mata’afa won the prestigious American disability award, the 2020 Henry Viscardi Achievement Award, early December. The award is a testament to her commitment to her job as the head of N.O.L.A. and to the disability population in Samoa.

Every year, the Henry Viscardi Achievement Awards recognizes extraordinary leaders from across the U.S. and around the world, who through the example of their accomplishments and advocacy efforts, are reshaping societal perceptions, eliminating barriers, and improving the quality of life for people with disabilities.

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