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Considering International Perspectives on Disability

August 10, 2016

By Elizabeth Heideman

Woman with shoulder length blond hair

 

 

I’ve spent my life as a disability rights activist in the West, which means that I’m a passionate supporter of the Social Model of disability. This means that I don’t believe “Disability” is just a medical or health condition—I believe that it’s a sociopolitical construct arising out of the barriers posed by society upon people with different bodies. 

For me, a flight of stairs is the true source of disability, and not anything to do with my physical impairments. 

Because of my history with disability activism, I was incredibly excited to work on inclusion practices within international development work this summer as part of my USICD internship. Yes, I’ll admit, I even thought it would be easy. And while the work has been incredibly rewarding and relevant to my career interests, I’ve also encountered some unexpected challenges along the way.

I didn’t anticipate how Western-centric my own particular disability politics are. When researching inclusive development in countries such as Nigeria, for example, I didn’t find staunch advocates of the Social Model, but instead found local activists fighting every day against traditional religious and cultural beliefs which hold that disability is a curse and the utmost source of shame. These Nigerian activists weren’t expounding on the evils of (dis)ableism—they were actually fighting for a Medical Model of disability to become accepted within their local communities. 

I was totally unprepared for this, especially within countries that have ratified the UN CRPD, which is based on the Social Model.

What I found this summer is that there is a big difference between the principles embraced within the CRPD by state parties to the convention and the principles actually held by local activists on the ground. And that’s okay. While it was initially a challenge for this Western disability rights activist to accept, I now see that as long as the rights and dignity of disabled people are central to local advocacy efforts, that’s really all that matters for now.

I credit the opportunities USICD has given me this summer for this amazing learning experience.

Elizabeth Heideman is one of the participants in the 2016 USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  She and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program, to be posted at this blog.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  Elizabeth Heideman is completing her internship at the National Democratic Institute (NDI).  Learn more about USICD’s internship program at http://usicd.org/template/page.cfm?id=257.  Read the biographies of our interns in the summer 2016 program.  The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD or NDI.

The State of Disability Inclusion at International Organizations

August 3, 2016

By Shafeka Hashash

IWoman with long hair smiles at camerat has become apparent to me that rhetoric around disability inclusion, much like all else in political discourse, is at best a talking point for most. I think speaking honestly about the state of inclusion is extremely important before then giving tips of optimism.  To give some background, I have spent the summer participating in the U.S. International Council on Disability (USICD) Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program as an intern with the Women’s Refugee Commission. The internship program was started because, despite there being one billion people worldwide who are disabled, there is a lack of disabled professionals working in the field of international development.  Prior to working in D.C., I could not have imagined the state of inclusion, or lack thereof, of disabled persons working on international policy or disability.

Oh the stories we could tell you about well meaning folks who struck us with their naivety. There are two stories that are really unforgettable in my mind, but I’m sure everyone else has their own favorites.  There was first the discussion with a high up official, who spoke about the need to employ disabled persons.  The anecdote he presented was of a woman who developed her disability later in life.  Since she lived in an under developed nation, the only choice her employer had was to effectively fire her because their office was inaccessible for her.  After being effectively fired, this woman worked doing unpaid advocacy work on the need for accessibility.  This, somehow, was supposed to be the tale that showed us how there were people working in the field and why we needed more.  He did not address why the employer did not work to keep this valuable employee once she became disabled by making their building accessible, or by finding a new accessible location.  He did not address why they didn’t think that caring about inclusion starts with not firing their employees and working to be a model for inclusion.

There was also someone from an international development organization who, after explaining the need to hire disabled persons, said that their website was not accessible.  However, if a user with disabilities wanted to apply to work at their office, they could just send an email explaining why they could not apply online and attach their application materials.  So much for disclosure anonymity.  Also, if the first interaction a hiring manager has with a disabled person is hearing that they could not take the first step of even applying without accommodation, I fear that this sets up the notion in their head that working with a disabled person is much too difficult.

If there is something this summer has shown me, it has dispelled the myth of the lack of disabled people who aim to work in development fields. I have easily met hundreds of disabled graduates, many with masters, law degrees, and more, who have done the fellowships, done the internships, who have stellar achievements, but after working within disabled groups, the doors are shut.  Spare us all the ideas that somehow we all just do not know how to network or leverage opportunities, which we have had to patronizingly hear from non-disabled folks who are younger or less experienced than us.  Please spare us this idea that “Oh no, Judy Heumann works in the U.S. State Department, so things are definitely open.” As if we would not at the bare minimum hope a woman who has fought for disability rights for some forty years should not hold a position of importance.  Time and time again, the names of much older, extremely incredible, employed disabled activists are used to show that organizations do hire disabled people.  If the script was flipped, and we could only name three top officials without disabilities, that would not be seen as anything less than completely absurd.

We are all no doubt grateful for Judy Heumann and the countless other activists who have paved the way for us today. I am extremely grateful to have an adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission who allows me to work very independently on a project I love, but also who allows me to tag along to important meetings at InterAction or the U.S. Institute of Peace in order to really understand how government and non-government organizations operate.  I am immensely grateful for USICD who knows that disability integration has barely scratched the surface in social science fields, despite this commonly being overlooked in favor of project creation in the STEM fields.  God knows if they had worked on STEM inclusion their funding would triple, and yet they focus on international development.  However, we are also tired of saying thank you for every ounce of opportunity that comes our way because of how many avenues remain shut.  The progress has been very slow, but at least we can say there is progress.  Whether you think that is optimistic is entirely up to you.

Internship Reflection

July 25, 2016

by Hannah Chadwick-Dias

Young woman with long black hair

Hannah Chadwick-Dias

 

 

Over the last few weeks, I have conducted research for future visitors; monitored an online exchange between Iraqi and American high school students; created guidelines for moderating online forums; developed a survey about disability inclusion for future World Learning interns; planned an event to celebrate the Americans with Disabilities Act for our staff and local organizations; updated old projects; reviewed documents on accessibility; and provided feedback for the Advancing Leader’s Fellowship Program through an online learning platform. I have worked with many teams, contributed to various projects, and gained a lot of valuable experiences that I can take with me to my next career.

Apart from the skills I have learned through this internship, I have also met a lot of amazing and very talented people, both in person and through online platforms. The online virtual exchange has more than 80 high school students (a mixture of Iraqi and American youth participants), who are working on their leadership skills, targeting social problems in their communities, defining global issues and figuring out ways to solve them, as well as building long-lasting relationships with each other in the program.

The Advancing Leader’s Fellowship program has over 50 participants from all over the world who are World Learning alumni, and are invited to an online project development course. They are asked to target problems in their communities and develop a project proposal that will be sustainable.  They will be able to submit and apply for grants at the end of the course, which will help them implement their projects in their communities.  I was given the opportunity to read their proposals and provide constructive feedback.  Many of their proposals center around youth leadership, education for girls, women’s rights, spreading LGBT awareness, providing support for youth with HIV or AIDS, and creating safe places for marginalized groups to freely express themselves or just to get support to help them be active members of society.

This summer has taught me a lot through my experiences with researching, event planning, updating project, monitoring online forums and networking. I did not expect that I would learn to use online tools, such as Google Classroom and Moodle, which can be complicated when we have to use a screen reader to navigate through the site.  The best part of my internship is that it has allowed me to figure out what I want to do in terms of my career path, and I am forever grateful to USICD as well as World Learning for this incredible opportunity!

Hannah Chadwick-Dias is one of the participants in the 2016 USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  She and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program, to be posted at this blog.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  Hannah Chadwick-Dias is completing her internship at World Learning.  Learn more about USICD’s internship program at http://usicd.org/template/page.cfm?id=257.  Read the biographies of our interns in the summer 2016 program.  The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD or World Learning.

DeafBlind Citizens Take the Lead

July 11, 2016

By Vivian Fridas

Woman with long brown hair, seated with black labrador service dog next to her

Vivian Fridas

 

On Thursday, June 23, 2016, as an intern at the USICD office, I was invited to attend a reception with the organization DeafBlind Citizens in Action (DBCA) and its members. This reception was held to celebrate the success of the group during their leadership program week in Washington DC. The leadership program seeks to bring members together in order to acquire leadership skills which they can then use in order to give back to the community. DBCA is a disability rights organization founded by young deaf blind adults who strive for a better world for all.

One of the many things on the agenda for the leadership week with DBCA included meeting with their respective representatives in order to gain support and sponsorship for the Cogswell-Macy Act. This bill was introduced into Congress in September 2015 and aims to ensure that students who are deafblind, deaf or hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired reach their full potential and receive the education they deserve. The Cogswell-Macy Act was named for the first deaf student to be formally educated in the United States and for Helen Keller’s beloved teacher. This is the most comprehensive special education legislation for students with sensory disabilities: supporters believe it is crucial for these students if they are to have equal opportunities in the classroom.

It was very fitting that all this advocacy work was being done in late June as June 27th marked the 136th birthday of Helen Keller, who was a well-known deafblind American. We celebrate her birthday not just because she was deafblind, but because Helen Keller was a champion of social causes and an advocate for all. Meeting members of DBCA made me realize that there is still a lot of work needed to be done here in the United States with our disabled students. It was empowering to be in the presence of other members in the disability rights field who were contributing to enhancing the world for deafblind individuals as well as people with disabilities in general. I learned a lot about what DBCA does and issues important to the deafblind community. I had very little exposure to topics important to deafblind people and little interaction with deafblind individuals up until now. I am glad I was able to attend this reception and gain more knowledge on a subset of the world’s largest minority.

After spending time with members of this organization, I am hopeful that they will achieve their goals set out during the leadership program week. I am also confident people with disabilities will be able to live full and productive lives with equal opportunities when we come together and advocate for legislation like the Cogswell-Macy Act. Something like this will ensure a better world is created for people with disabilities in which all can enjoy an equal shot at all parts of life.

Vivian Fridas is one of the participants in the 2016 USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  She and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program, to be posted at this blog.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  Vivian Fridas is completing her internship at USICD.  Learn more about the internship program at http://usicd.org/template/page.cfm?id=257.  Read Vivian Fridas, and the biographies of other interns in the summer 2016 program.  The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD.

Finding My Career Path

June 29, 2016

By Hannah Chadwick Dias

Young woman with long black hair

Hannah Chadwick-Dias

 

 

People keep telling me that internships are a great way to start finding out my interests, where I want to work, what I want to do, what types of jobs to look for, and how to go about it. Their advice did not truly sink in until I completed my undergraduate studies.

Like many recent graduates, I was not sure what I wanted to do after college. I was certain that I did not want to pursue a graduate degree right away, and I knew I wanted to work in the field of human rights.  I thought about developing sustainable programs in the areas of human trafficking, disability rights, education for children, advocacy work for

marginalized communities, as well as food security and water sanitation.  These ideas helped me secure a spot in the 2016 USICD summer internship program, and they placed me at World Learning for a two month internship.

As the second week of my internship at World Learning is coming to a close, I’ve been thinking about how I could incorporate all of my ideas and interests to come up with a career that would be rewarding to me. I’ve met with the various teams at World Learning, learned about what each team does, and collected information to see where my skills would be best utilized.  My conclusion is that, based on my skills, experiences, background and interests, the best place for me to start my career would be in the international academic exchange field.  This area of work would allow me to educate young adults on inclusion, help provide tools for scholars to develop new programs or projects in marginalized communities, and I would be able to make a difference in many people’s lives both on a national as well as on an international level.

Prior to this internship, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to work. The only thing I was sure of were my interests.  However, I did not know how to combine them into something more solid; and because of this, I did not have any ideas on how I could start seeking jobs or even where to start.  However, the last few weeks has given me numerous opportunities to grow and expand my ideas.  None of this would have been possible without the support of USICD and World Learning.

Hannah Chadwick-Dias is one of the participants in the 2016 USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  She and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program, to be posted at this blog.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  Hannah Chadwick-Dias is completing her internship at World Learning.  Learn more about USICD’s internship program at http://usicd.org/template/page.cfm?id=257.  Read the biographies of our interns in the summer 2016 program.  The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD or World Learning.

International Development Needs Workers with Disabilities

June 21, 2016

By Elizabeth Heideman

Woman with shoulder length blond hair

Elizabeth Heideman

 

 

Before I came to D.C., I already knew the facts: that there are over 1 billion people with disabilities in the world and that 80% of them live in developing countries. I knew that people with disabilities are the poorest of the poor and living on the fringes of society, out of sight and out of mind—even to the people trying to make the world a more equitable place. Indeed, traditional development efforts and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals of the 2000s may have actually marginalized disabled people further due to their complete lack of inclusion according to some experts.

I knew that the development world needed people with disabilities in the field, but I couldn’t have imagined just how much until this summer.

Since the first day of orientation for this year’s USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship, I’ve seen development and human rights practitioners from a variety of organizations have their eyes opened to what it truly means to practice inclusive development. After their PowerPoint presentations and their pre-prepared talking points, I’ve seen them look up and into the faces of my fellow interns and I and realize that this is what their work is truly about—ensuring that young people around the world with disabilities like us can have the opportunity to get an education, get jobs and maybe even join in the fight themselves for a better future for all.

Some organizations who presented at orientation—in fact, most of them—admitted that they were still learning how to include people with disabilities. And that’s okay. USICD gave us the chance to create an interactive dialogue with the speakers, discussing things like the realities of field work for development practitioners with disabilities, website accessibility (or lack thereof) and what it really means to have an inclusive hiring strategy.

Starting my first week of work, I encountered some small access issues in the office. My host organization resolved them quickly and graciously, but more importantly, my access needs were able to demonstrate the real, human side of inclusive development and that “leaving no one behind” includes taking that first step of hiring qualified disabled professionals right here in D.C.

Since arriving here, I, as an intern, have learned a lot. But I think the development professionals we’ve interacted with have too, and that can only help us on this ever-evolving journey of sustainable, inclusive development for all.

Elizabeth Heideman is one of the participants in the 2016 USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  She and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program, to be posted at this blog.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  Elizabeth Heideman is completing her internship at the National Democratic Institute (NDI).  Learn more about USICD’s internship program at http://usicd.org/template/page.cfm?id=257.  Read the biographies of our interns in the summer 2016 program.  The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD or NDI.

Optimistic for Future Opportunities

June 15, 2016

By Vivian Fridas

Vivian Fridas headshot 2016

Vivian Fridas with service dog, Ditto

This summer, I have returned to Washington DC to act as an intern at USICD’s office as well as the mentor for the interns in USICD’s Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs program. As an alumni of this internship program from two years, I am happy to be back and have another great experience.

 

Coming back, I did have a few concerns. First, I wondered if I could be and effective mentor for the new group of interns. After all, I was returning as just an intern. I was not coming back as an alumni with a full-time job. I was a little nervous the new group of cohorts would take one look at me and immediately conclude that I was not a success and had nothing of value to offer. Within a few minutes of spending time with the three ladies, I knew that they were not thinking anything of the sort and really thought my experience could be useful. Second, I feared that this opportunity would be another internship in a long list that would not lead to anything permanent. It feels like I am doomed to play the role of the eternal intern. It is very easy to get discouraged with the job hunting process. I have learned that seizing opportunities and taking full advantage of what they have to offer can lead to other paths and possibilities. This summer, I plan on leading by example and using every resource at my disposal in order to achieve my ultimate goal of attaining employment.

This leads me into my next concern. As individuals with disabilities, we all know that it is harder to find and attain steady employment. There are extra barriers and obstacles we have to overcome. These hurdles may differ with each disability, but they nevertheless impact our efforts. Something that became increasingly apparent during our orientation week deals with how effective employers are at hiring people with disabilities. This is not to say that there is not great enthusiasm on the part of an employer to hire more diverse staff that include people with disabilities, but it seems as though many do not know how to achieve this goal. Furthermore, there may be a big outreach effort on the part of the organization, but when it comes to applying for a position a person with a disability may find that the organization’s website is not accessible. This is a problem. How can we bridge this gap? How can we bring employers seeking to hire qualified candidates together with people with disabilities who meet the required qualifications and are interested in employment?

Programs like USICD’s Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program are excellent examples of promoting the hiring of young people with disabilities in international development. This program is highly selective and our candidates have extraordinary backgrounds and experience. By matching them with an organization similar to their passion and interests, a great relationship can begin with positive outcomes. This will leave the organization a desire to reach out and hire more people with disabilities in the future. I think it is our responsibility as advocates to continue educating the public about people with disabilities. I also feel that more needs to be done in order to ensure people with disabilities get a fair shot in all aspects of life. More opportunities for employment of people with disabilities can be a great start to bridging the inequality gap. I hope that I will get the chance to take on projects relating to disability rights and inclusion both domestically and internationally.

Vivian Fridas is one of the participants in the 2016 USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  She and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program, to be posted at this blog.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  Vivian Fridas is completing her internship at USICD.  Learn more about the internship program at http://usicd.org/template/page.cfm?id=257.  Read Vivian Fridas, and the biographies of other interns in the summer 2016 program.  The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD.