Turns out being a disability spy is a thing

By Cesilia Faustina
Photography by Cesilia Faustina

Being paid to stalk children from the school they go to, yes, it does sound creepy, but it is a real thing.

Lucy Waja is a “Shadow,” which is pretty much a person that follows around children that seemingly are having a hard time with their studies, and looks to help them overcome that struggle.

“So shadow, sounds super creepy but pretty much I am a paid stalker, it sounds awful but yes, I am a paid stalker,”

The title ‘shadow’ was made by a school in Amman, aimed for children in general. However, it usually ends up being guidance counseling for those with a learning disability. Lucy, as a person who not only used to be a former student at the school she works at, was also diagnosed with learning disabilities herself.

She was diagnosed with dyslexia and also grew up with dysgraphia.

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that can cause problems in reading, writing and spelling, while dysgraphia is the inability to write properly. These two disabilities usually go hand-in-hand and Lucy experienced just that.

“So I knew I was different I just didn’t know if there was an actual title to how different I was,”

“…I was like ‘this is super interesting, there’s an actual thing for what I have.’”

Having experience in the field and the school made her the perfect candidate to spy on people.

Jordan’s disability acceptance scale

Lucy is a shadow and has dysgraphia and dyslexia.

Disability has never been a very prominent subject within the Middle Eastern region and many institutions do not have the right means for people with these symptoms.

In Jordan, only three percent of children with disabilities were receiving education and 35.3 percent of people with disabilities were illiterate, according to the Helpdesk Report. To top it off, only 11 percent of schools are accommodating disabled students.

Lucy was one of those who ended up having to deal with her disability without much guidance, so when the opportunity came up to be a paid stalker, she gladly took the job.

“I kind of made it my job because I love working with children, so to me, if you’re a kid, I got your back sort of, even if you totally screw up,”

“There’s a lot of things kids deal with today, they feel they are alone, they don’t have anyone having their backs, not including their parents and siblings, but outside of that; they don’t have that.

“For me, it literally does have a huge impact to their attitudes and behaviors to know that an adult does cares about them, and if anything goes wrong, I can just go to them and talk about it with them.”

The outspoken Jordanian mentioned the goal of being a shadow was to try and encourage them to be their own person.

“The first kid I worked with when I first started shadowing has autism, dysgraphia and ADHD, and so from there I thought ‘ok, so he’s autistic’ and I was told he has ADHD, and he can’t write properly because he has dysgraphia, so the main thing about a kid who has a shadow is to try and get them to be independent so they don’t struggle so much,”

“Obviously they are always going to struggle because they will always be on a spectrum on the disability scale, but at the same time, you can always get higher up so that you do not depend on someone.”

Aside from helping them to understand and write better, Lucy also helps them deal with their emotional aspect.

“…people with autism kind of just don’t know how to express their emotions. So I would try to get them to talk to me.”

Many children with a disability tend to experience social exclusion because many families still feel ashamed about such conditions. This is also the case in Jordan, where many families aspire to have their children married with a family, which leaves them ineligible if they are “different.”

Jordan, however, seems to be developing in this sector with efforts in trying to provide more accessibility rights for people with disabilities. They recently attended the Global Disability Summit 2018 in London, showcasing the seriousness of the situation.

“It was a pain in the ass,”

Lucy experienced a lot of difficulties growing up, particularly at school.

Lucy said she experienced many difficulties when having to deal with her disability, such as how hard it was to keep up in class.

Having gone to a school in a country which, at that time – even today, did not accept disabilities, it was not like finding out you had a learning disability was the easiest thing to do.

It did not help that she was raised in a household that pressured academic success.

“At first, my mom was very into wanting me to be really, really good,” she said. 

“We have really high education standards, and so to me, in my head I tried and I tried, but in my head I was never able to reach that level.

“My mom started realizing that I would never reach that level and after a while, she started realizing that that was ok, she saw I was trying my best. So after saying all my life I had to do my best, after a while I think she realized I was trying my best and that’s all she asked for.

“I was technically doing what she asked me to do.”

Due to the lack of knowledge about the disability world, Lucy had to undergo many education gaps in her life. With no foundation and support, she ended up having a terrible time at school.

“It was awful. I would literally sit down in my 55 minutes classes and I would literally take notes and nothing would sit. And then I would go home with all my books and reteach myself everything the person taught me,” she said.

Childhood upbringings

Lucy grew up in an Arab/Asian household with only her mom in the picture. Being Jordanian with an Indian/Sri Lankan mother and Sudanese father (who had long left the picture), her diverse background shaped her to be the fun-loving person we know as Lucy.

“I am Jordanian, born and raised here. My mom is originally Indian and when she was 12 she moved to Sri Lanka, and then while she was in Sri Lanka she worked for the UN and the moved her to the Middle East,” she said.

“While she was here she kind of fell in love with it. So she kind of just left her job in the UN, stayed here and pursued her dream of becoming a chef.”

Jordan is a country of diverse citizens. You get many foreigners coming and migrating to find a job or would settle due to family.

Jordan has a population of around nine million and 2.9 million of them are non-citizens, which include refugees and illegal and legal immigrants, according to the Jordan Times. It is also home to the second highest refugee population.

“She’s been here for 30 some years and we’ve even had people visiting and they would mention that she looked Indian but her characteristic is definitely not Indian, it’s very Arab,” Lucy added.

“It’s a very intense combo, if you screw up you would get screwed.”

As for her father, he left when she was very young and came back when she was six years old. He eventually left again when she was nine – and also somehow got deported; Lucy also did not understand how that happened.

Either way, she preferred to keep him on the low and keep it that way, her mom is the only parent she needed.

The low of the low

Lucy grew up only with her mom after her father left.

Growing up with a father that left and multiple identity background on top of her disabilities cannot be an easy experience to go through.

Lucy mentioned that at times it did get very difficult, which led her to depression and suicidal thoughts.

“My mom was in the hospital for an internal organ problem, and the year before that, was when my father left,” she said.

“My father left when I was nine years old and my mom got into the hospital just a year later. So within a short time I had one parent who just disappeared and one that was dying in the hospital.”

Experiencing social exclusion

Bullying was also an issue Lucy had to go through in school. The fact that she was the only black kid in a predominantly light-skinned school did not help any situation.

Bullying is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon in Jordan and worldwide. According to a study by Young Voices, 34 percent of schoolchildren fear getting bullied at some point in their lives.

Most schools in Jordan also lack counselors that can be there to listen and help the children.

“On top of that I was dealing with depression, I was dealing with suicidal thoughts, dealing with not understanding with what these people are saying, on top of that no friends, nobody actually wanted to really ask ‘how are you and are you ok?’ instead of just the social ‘how are you?’ the ones you think you feel obligated to, not exactly a ‘what is wrong or what is making you cry?’, nobody actually wanted to know me, they just thought that we have to deal with a kid who may be an orphan in less than a year,” Lucy added.

“That was the whole thing. I was bullied, I was a cutter, I was suicidal and I had no friends. I was all over the place. That was probably the hardest thing I had to deal with.”

Fortunately, Lucy was able to get out of her funk with some strong inner realization and strong people to help along the way.

The way out

“I had an epiphany about myself about being different on top of just being raised by a single mom,” she said.

“The epiphany on just the studying part was that I kind of always tried to reach my classmates and trying to outdo them, and I thought I don’t really need to outdo them. What was I supposed to do?…It was stupid.

“So I thought, you are smart in your own way, you don’t need to try and be them because they will always be different than you. And then for my mom, it was just weird not having both parents at the same time, because that’s what I had for 2 years, but then I thought I functioned just fine with one parent, I don’t need two, I just need one, and one that actually cares and loves me and not one that doesn’t gives a shit about me. So I’m content.”

Another figure that was prominent in Lucy’s life was her principle. The person that made her discover she even had disabilities.

Julie Nichols was the former principal of her school and somehow, her own personal shadow. Thanks to her monitoring and stalking initiative, she discovered Lucy was different and encouraged an Individualized Education Program.

Luckily, Lucy had some people to support her along the way.

“She thought it was not normal and realized that I did kind of had a difficulty and wanted the best for me, so she actually paid for my testing to be done, which is a shit ton of money, especially here,” she said.

“Then she just kind of forced an individual education plan on the school and explained that we have a kid who was like this and we were going to have to follow the IEP.”

The shadow with a purpose

Given everything Lucy had to go through, as well as her social and caring attitude, she turned out to be the right candidate to be a shadow, following in the footsteps of her own shadow.

Lucy said she wished there was somebody that got to tell her that she was not stupid and that it was ok to be different.

These were the words she aspired to pass on from her life.

“You can always try to make yourself happy and those you love and close with happy, but at the end of the day, it’s your happiness,” she said.

“There’s no point in you being miserable when people are unhappy about it and you have to act like everything is ok, because that is not ok. That was what I had to deal with for two years, so I thought, you know what, fuck it. If I’m unhappy then I’m unhappy, I’m not going to try to be happy.”

Lucy hoped more people would accept disability, particularly in Jordan. To finally be a normalized condition amongst society.

We can only hope, seeing how common disabilities are, that it will be just another part of life without the shame and discrimination we commonly see. In the meantime, I guess we just need to have some self-epiphany like this one Jordanian.

“You are not stupid that is for sure,” she said.

“Yeah, you are different and that is totally ok because you do not want to be normal because it is boring. There’s no point in trying to be normal if you will be like everyone else, you are you.”

“You are not stupid that is for sure,”


Lucy Waja is a shadow for a private school located in Amman, Jordan (due to the privacy of the school, we are keeping it anonymous). She spies on kids to try and help them with any education gaps they are facing. She is also diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia growing up and hoped to encourage students and society to accept learning disabilities and disabilities in general.

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