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Learning Disability Advocacy through Engaging U.S. Senate Campaigns

December 20, 2016
Young man with short light brown hair and short beard wearing a suit and tie

Chris Damon

By Chris Damon, USICD Intern

Simply put, I could not have picked a more momentous time to rejoin USICD’s staff as a full-time intern.

I had worked with USICD’s staff once before, right before my senior year of college.  Now, a year into my dual-degree graduate school program at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University), I found myself back in Washington, DC, working again with the organization that had first opened my eyes to how disability rights and advocacy (which I was already involved with at the local level) could have an international focus and global ramifications.  I was with the team right when the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) first went to the U.S. Senate for ratification in 2012, so it was only fitting that one of my main tasks this second time around was to help coordinate outreach efforts to U.S. Senate candidates and incumbents campaigning for this year’s election cycle.  Our goal was to keep track of whether candidates were emphasizing the CRPD during their campaigns, or at least publicly supporting the treaty,with the hope that we would be able to connect USICD members who live in their state to educate their candidates on the CRPD.  As the outreach effort proceeded, I could not help but be touched how many candidates seemed to care – sometimes with an unexpected passion – about the rights and struggles of our community.  By the end of the 2016 election season, we heard from 13 different campaigns concerning the positions of their candidates on CRPD ratification.

However, as touched as I was by these positive responses, I also could not help but be disappointed.  Seventeen prospective officials may seem like a lot, but that number becomes quite a bit smaller when remembering that number is out of a total of 60 campaigns.  At the same time, though, I doubt if any of this was the fault of the candidates in particular.  I remember that, when calling certain campaigns to see if they had received our inquiries or if their candidate “was close in making a decision” the person on the other line always made it seem like they had simply not looked at our previous messages and/or forgotten about us.  After all, campaign e-mails were no doubt monitored by multiple people, who had to sort through hundreds of different messages and e-mails at any one time (no doubt even more of a problem for candidates who already had a seat in the U.S. Senate).  Therefore, it only makes sense that the outreach of USICD’s staff and our members had to occur at a specific time, and during the shifts of specific people, for us to get noticed.  The problem was, no two campaigns had that same “specific time,” nor the “specific people” tasked with the same set of duties; and on top of that no two campaigns had the same guidelines on what questions they could or could not answer.  Some campaigns, for example, were more than happy to answer USICD’s question, and to convey (or at least make it seem) that they took interest in what we were trying to accomplish.  On the flipside, the campaign for at least one incumbent candidate explicitly told me that they could not answer legislative inquiries – meaning that attempting to get through an overloaded e-mail and voicemail server was the only convenient way for their constituents and others to get ahold of them.

Nonetheless, despite the odds we faced, there was always a hope that putting whatever information we had out there would make a difference – that those officials who may have demonstrated a less-than-stellar record towards the issues of persons with disabilities would face enough opposition (and enough calls flooding their offices) that their likelihood for winning a seat in the U.S. Senate this year would diminish.  As this year’s election cycle drew to a close, though, I was surprised and dismayed at how irrelevant displayed solidarity with the disability community seemed in dictating whether candidates won or lost.  As it turns out, the vast majority of people who supported the CRPD and won were incumbents, running relatively noncompetitive campaigns.  While two staunch CRPD-supporting incumbents did end up losing their seats, ironically their opponents have also displayed potential for allying with our community – arguably just as strongly as they had.  Now, in another day and age, I would have not have thought too much about it.  Disability, after all, is supposed to be a nonpartisan issue with members of our community stretching across all sorts of political and cultural lines. Historically, it has been just that.  Alas, we are not living in “another day and age,” – for it was not long before I realized the disability community likely had a lot more than a handful of senate campaigns to worry about.

Now, as my internship at USICD draws to a close, the only other thing I can say is that working with the organization’s staff was an invaluable experience.  I learned a lot of valuable lessons in how to carry out public service and advocacy, working in an organization that had to quickly adapt and try to keep their members energized and positive into these next few (very long) years in a rapidly changing political climate.  In turn, my experience next spring semester when I am poised to intern in the State Department will be another eye-opening experience, as I will see first-hand how a federal agency adapts to the outcome of an election that has surprised so many.    I only hope I can carry over the same line of work that I was doing in USICD and in most of my working life into this completely new, and changing territory.

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.