Skip to content

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  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.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: