Emily Korir — Australia and Kenya’s Stroke Awareness and Disability Advocate

After a severe stroke left her on life support, Emily Korir fought to regain her independence through a rigorous rehabilitation program. Post-rehab, Korir was faced with a new challenge–finding accessible housing. Recognizing an enormous deficit in accessibility and disability support, Korir founded BET Group Global, a company dedicated to supporting persons with disabilities with accessible housing and services that provide opportunities to live well and thrive.

Emily Korir joined ABILITY Magazine’s Anne Njoroge in a virtual interview to discuss her life-changing stroke, overcoming the odds to achieve her dreams, advocating for accessibility and equity in communities where persons with disabilities are frequently ignored, and supporting outreach on a global scale.

Emily and Jacinta Malonza, Director of DECAS.
Emily and Jacinta Malonza, Director of DECAS

Anne Njoroge: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Emily Korir: Ok. I am a stroke survivor. I am a disability advocate. I am a CEO. I am a mother. I am a wife. I am a woman.

Njoroge: How do you balance that?

Korir: I know, right? I asked myself, too. This morning, I was up at 5 AM to take my son to tennis, and then back to the office to that meeting. And then, I go back to get him. But life goes on and work goes on.

Njoroge: You grew up in Nakuru (Kenya)?

Korir: Yes.

Njoroge: Tell me more about the stroke, how it all started, and how you overcame all the challenges.

Korir: In 2012, I had just had Bradley. He was a few months old, and we were getting ready to go. It was a Saturday afternoon. I was not sick at all. I was breastfeeding. We were getting ready to go to my friend’s 40th birthday. It was a surprise 40th birthday. My husband, her husband and a few friends of ours had been organizing it. I was going to be the MC because she was very close to me, and there were going to be 150 people there. I just finished cleaning the house and I thought, “Okay, let me be ready so I can get the kids prepared.” I’m going to the shower, I get this sharp headache on my left side, and I thought, “Hm, let me take a Panadol so that by the time we get to the party, I’m ready to go.” I go to the kitchen to get my two tablets and I’m walking back to my room, and the two tablets fall from my hand. I didn’t think anything of it. I bent, I picked it up, and I kept walking to my room. It fell again. Brittany was behind me. Our daughter was six years old at that time.

She was like, “Mom, stop playing with your medicine.” I said, “I’m not.” She said, “I’ll pick it up for you.” As she goes to pick it up.–She’s coming up.– I’m falling. So, she screams, “Dad, something’s wrong with mom!” My husband comes running and picks me up. I was quite chubby because I just had the baby. My husband’s not small, but he couldn’t carry me. He pulled me and put me on the bed in our room and he asked me, “Honey, are you okay?” I said, “Yes, please get the Mercedes ready. We’ll take it to the party.” He knew then something was wrong because we didn’t have a Mercedes. We had a Mercedes when we lived in America 10 years ago.

Njoroge: Oh, wow.

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Korir: He knew then something was wrong and he called the ambulance. He called triple zero. My husband kept monitoring my heartbeat. In five minutes, he said the first ambulance arrived, but it was a country ambulance. They probably checked me, and they told my husband, “We think it’s a stroke, but this ambulance is not stroke-equipped, but we’ve called another one.” My husband said that in two minutes, another one was there. Straight away, they started treatment for me because a stroke-equipped ambulance can start working on you.

Another small car arrived which was the cardiologist and a neurologist, who then confirmed to my husband that it was a severe stroke. My husband said, “No, it cannot be a stroke because she’s only young.” I was in my late 30s. To my husband, a stroke is a senior citizen event. It’s not for young people. The doctors kept telling him, “Yes, it is. What we’re going to do now is we’ll take over Emily, and you just look after your children.” Now my daughter is screaming. She’s crying. My son is crying because my daughter is crying. They told my husband, “You prepare the children. Get someone to look after the children, and then you can come to Queen Elizabeth’s hospital and just come to the emergency room, and they will direct you where Emily is.” I was actually taken to Royal Adelaide Hospital which was closer to home because if they drove all the way to Queen Elizabeth’s hospital, they would have lost me.

My husband was confused because I was not sick. There were no symptoms at all. I was taken into the ICU and was now on life support. My husband said people kept running in and out of this room, but nobody talked to them. After four hours, the doctor came and said, “She’s actually not stabilizing, so there’s no need for you to sit here because we are not going to allow you to see her anyway. Just go, we’ll call you.” My husband said, “Can I just pray for her? Can I go and just touch her and pray for her?”

Emily Korir President Obama and Bernard Tanui
Emily Korir , President Obama and Bernard Tanui Managing Director the BET Group

My husband did not prepare himself. When he walked in, he was in shock because it was just machines. He could find my fingers and he touched them and he prayed. He said he asked God to preserve me for the children. He said to God, “Even if she’s coming back in a wheelchair, that’s fine, but just preserve her.” He said when he prayed, he felt it okay in his heart. Another challenge was that, at the moment, my son who was fully breastfeeding. My husband found out that he was anaphylactic to dairy, so he couldn’t even have powdered milk. We didn’t know because he was fully breastfed.

The next day, they took him to the women’s and children’s hospital and they made some milk for him to be able to drink. Then they started making that milk for him and ordering it from America.

Njoroge: Wow, that is a touching story.

Korir: Yes, even now, he’s still anaphylactic to dairy, eggs, and nuts. But he’s such a good kid and such an athletic kid. He’s playing tennis. The next few months were terrible because now I was on life support for seven days. I was in the ICU for a month, and then I was in the stroke ward, which is the HDU, for three months. Then in Australia, when you get a stroke, automatically your husband becomes your caregiver. With a stroke, I had no choice. I was discharged to rehab. That is the rule in Australia.

Njoroge: The caregiver cannot take care of you in the house you mean?

Korir: No. When I was on life support, they told my husband, “The wife you knew is not coming back. You have to prepare for that. She will never walk, talk, read, or write again..” I was discharged to rehab, which is attached to the hospital. I was there for 18 months to relearn everything.

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Njoroge: Oh, my Gosh. That was devastating, I can’t imagine how that felt to the whole family.

Korir: Yes. My husband said that shocked him, but he was ready. He was okay. He had to see a psychologist when I was in rehab. My daughter had to see a psychologist as well. That was provided by the rehab, to understand how to support me. Our friends and family members were also trained on how to deal with me. It was really hard. Rehab was hard. I lost my memory. I couldn’t remember my children; I couldn’t remember my husband. I had to learn to do everything–walking, talking. In my sixth month, my speech pathologist started to teach me how to count. I could count to three, and I was so excited, but she said, “Oh, Emily, you know with stroke, there’s short-term goals and long-term goals.” I told her, “Now that I can count, I’m going to go back to university and do my MBA.” She didn’t believe me. I was so sad. The next day, I’m seeing a psychologist, and she says, “Oh, what has been happening?” and I’m telling her, “I can count three. I can remember. That means I can go back to university and do my MBA.”

You could tell that the psychologist has been told to prepare to talk to me because she started with the same thing with stroke, the attack of the brain, and doing an MBA is a long-term goal. So, I knew, God and me, we were going to show them. It became my drive to do that.

Njoroge: I think that gave you a lot of drive because you did it, and here you are, doing great.

Korir: After 18 months in rehab, it was time for me to be discharged, but to be cleared, an occupational therapist (OT) had to come to the house to make sure that I was being discharged to a safe environment. The OT came and looked at the house and gave recommendations to my husband. It was like $40,000. Remember now my husband is a single parent. No job now because he’s looking after the children. We didn’t have $40,000. My husband thought, “You know what, honey? Let’s just rent this house, and we go and rent an accessible house, and when you get better, we will come back.” He started to look for an accessible house to rent, but he couldn’t find one. Then he thought, “Okay, honey, maybe then we can sell this house, and then we buy an accessible house.”

He started looking for an accessible house to buy, but there was none. That became the drive, and that’s how the business was born. We started BET. We build accessible housing for people with disabilities here in Australia, and we are building our first one in Kenya, so we are quite excited. We’re building apartments in Kenya, and we’ve dedicated the ground floor to be accessible. It’s going to be the first one in Kenya, and we are so excited.

In Australia, we’ve partnered with the government, we build the houses, they give us the clients, and we provide the staff 24/7. We look at very complex clients. We have over 300 staff, and we operate in four states in South Australia, which is our head office. Then we have Victoria, New South Wales, and Western Australia. We are so grateful for the lives that we have managed to impact and the positive difference that this is making. We are grateful.

Accessible homes
Accessible homes

I ended up doing my MBA and I graduated, and I couldn’t find a job. I thought after, “I’ve overcome a stroke. I still have the disability–yes, but I’m resilient. I can do this. I can manage a team.” I couldn’t find a job. I was so frustrated. I went back and did a master’s in disability policy and practice because I wanted to understand where policy and practice comes in because I saw so much discrimination.

I was seeing people with disabilities go through this every day. Somebody judges you. That became my drive, and that’s what I do now, fighting for inclusion. The fight for inclusion goes on.

Njoroge: I know. That’s great. I can see the drive, what you’re doing right now and having come from a stroke, trying to read again and write and doing an MBA. That is so incredible! How is the project in Kenya? Is it a partnership?

Korir: It’s currently being built. It’s just me and my husband because we realized a lot of people don’t want to enter this space. We decided if we want something done, let’s do it first and show that it can be done. We hoped that we could meet the President in Kenya and ask him “With social housing, are you considering people with disabilities? Are any of these apartments actually accessible?”, but we didn’t meet him. In Kenya, people don’t even know what that is. We need to continue advocating and showing change and what living in an accessible house can do for someone with a disability because I believe that people with disabilities truly deserve to live in nice houses just like everyone else. It needs to be stylish. We just don’t build and just leave it there. We go above and beyond and make sure that it’s built for purpose. We don’t look at the disability just now, we look at your disability 70 years from now. So, people with disability don’t have to go to a nursing home, they can age in an accessible house that has been built for them.

Njoroge: I can resonate with that because I remember one of my friends who has a disability, a former finance manager, who lives in an apartment in Nairobi that is not accessible. She told me about the challenges she faces getting in and out of her house. And it’s not just her; many people with disabilities are facing the same.

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Korir: It’s such a task. People have to carry you to go up, carry you down. Having an accessible house can change somebody’s life. It will change people’s lives. When we got into it and started doing it and started researching, it’s not just an Australian issue. It’s a global issue.

Njoroge: That’s true, it’s a global issue.

Korir: The sad part is–for Kenya, for Africa, for developing countries–it’s a conversation that nobody’s having. It’s a conversation that needs to be heard. It’s a conversation that I will continue to drum into politicians and policymakers until one day they get it.

Njoroge: Do you think it’s a cost issue or it’s just that they don’t want to buy in because this is an area they don’t want to explore?

Korir: They don’t know anything about it and they don’t want to try. Some politicians in Kenya, I know for sure they know, but they choose to ignore this issue. They choose to ignore this question, but it’s a conversation that we must continue to have wherever we’re invited in Kenya. Wherever I’m on television, wherever I’m given any media platform, I just want to talk about accessible housing because it’s so important. Hopefully, one day somebody will hear and give it some attention.

Njoroge: Absolutely, it deserves a lot of attention. I agree with you 100%. Wow. That’s been an amazing story. Just hearing from you.

Korir: Thank you. Thank you for even considering our story. I met with the National Council for Persons with Disability Kenya (NCPWD). We’ve opened a foundation in Kenya. We currently support young girls with disabilities and fighting FGM (female genital mutilation) for young girls with disabilities because that’s still happening in remote areas. We have been doing this since 2019.

men and women posing with BET Group cars and passenger van

We’ve partnered now with NCPWD. Our foundation from 2024 is going to sponsor girls with disabilities who finished year eight to go to high school and pay school fees. We will also go to the schools and see where they will be sleeping, and we will make it accessible for the young girls. Hopefully, then they will see that it’s not hard. That if we just go one little step to make the bathroom a little bit wider, that if we make this door a little bit wider, then this girl will be able to have a life just like everyone else in the school. In January 2024, we’ll have our first intake, and we want to have a big launch so other companies can also see it. If we can change one child’s life, that life will change other lives.

Njoroge: That’s so commendable. I don’t remember if we had that kind of inclusion in high school.  Most parents in the past preferred to hide children with disabilities in the house and not take them to school.

Korir: I keep telling them when I go to schools and I keep asking teachers, “Who do you think benefits from having a child with a disability? In the school, who do you think benefits?” They all say it’s the child with a disability, and I say, “Absolutely not! It is the child without the disability that benefits.” It’s the child without the disability that will learn from a very young age that people with disabilities are just like me. They’re just abled differently because this person with a disability will come out and work in offices with these people. But if these people understood from a young age that we’re all the same, then having a job or hiring someone with a disability would not be different. In Kenya, we don’t meet the 5% threshold, private or public. We don’t give employment to people with disabilities because we don’t know how to treat them.

Njoroge: Yeah, sure. I agree with you. That’s an eye-opening question. This conversation must continue. As you said, it’s a global issue. Companies brand themselves as disability inclusive, but don’t walk the walk–we don’t see the numbers.

Korir: Because nobody wants to commit to it.

Njoroge: Very true. Before you started advocating, what were you doing before then?

Korir: It is so funny. You know God sometimes does things his way. I was a human resource strategist, but my job was to hire people to go work with people with disabilities. The way I look at it now, I’m like, “What was I even doing?” I don’t even think I was hiring the right people. Then my mom said, “God was preparing you for this. He needed you to see from that angle and now from your own experience.”

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Njoroge: That’s very true.

Korir: Yes, because at BET, our purpose is to support people with disabilities to live well and thrive. If you don’t know that, we won’t hire you.

Njoroge: Do you have persons with disabilities as part of your team?

Korir: Yes, absolutely. Not just clients, but as staff. We have people with disabilities and we make a lot of accommodations for them so they’re able to work here. They’re able actually to show our other teams as well that this is how we do this and this is how we like things done for us by us.

Njoroge: Have you done any work with the CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) at the United Nations?

Korir: No, I would love to because I think it’s time, especially about accessible housing. I would like to do some work with them.

Njoroge: Kenya did sign?

Korir: They have! They’re ratified, but they have not been implemented at all.

Njoroge: The worst is the implication. Many countries are in the same position. They sign, they’re ratified, but to produce change within a government structure seems difficult.

Korir: It is.

Njoroge: Are you familiar with Focus on Ability or Nova Employment in Australia?

Korir: No, are they in Sydney or Melbourne?

Njoroge: They have several locations. ABILITY Magazine spoke with Jess Orcsik, who runs the Focus on Ability program in Australia. They have short films of people with disabilities and documentaries and it’s international.

I’m sure you don’t know all the things that we do. Since 1999, the ABILITY House Project has been building homes for families with disabilities of low income that are accessible with a universal design built into them.

Korir: Wow, I love you already.

Njoroge: Maybe we can collaborate with housing in Australia and in Kenya?

Korir: Please, any collaboration would be amazing. Let’s continue this conversation. It’s exciting. Sounds wonderful.

BET Group Global

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