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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.

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