Mobility International USA (MIUSA) was co-founded in 1981 by Susan Sygall and Barbara Williams-Sheng, both graduate students at the University of Oregon. Susan Sygall, a wheelchair rider, had recently finished a year studying abroad as a Rotary Scholar in Australia.
Perplexed by how few people with disabilities were going abroad, she had the idea for a disability-led organization to promote international exchange for people with disabilities.The early years of MIUSA were exciting with a small base of a few staff and an active local board of directors.
MIUSA pioneered inclusive short-term international exchange programs in the United States and abroad beginning in 1981, bringing together emerging and established leaders with and without disabilities from around the world. These include MIUSA’s inbound leadership programs, which bring international young people to the United States to celebrate their disabilities, build alliances, and establish friendships that last beyond the exchange.
While many people with all types of disabilities benefited from MIUSA’s disability exchange programs that are still going strong today, a gap still persisted to include people with disabilities in all types of existing exchange programs.
In 1995, MIUSA launched the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to increase the participation of people with disabilities in the broad range of international exchange programs. MIUSA became a national leader promoting equal opportunity access to study, teach, intern, cultural, professional, and volunteer abroad programs, and its practical advising, resources, and trainings are widely used and respected today.
As an organization led by a woman with a disability, MIUSA naturally works from a gender lens. Also in 1995, MIUSA organized an historic event, the International Symposium on Women with Disabilities in Beijing, China at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. Building on this momentum through to the present, MIUSA launched its unique model of leadership training and innovative Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD) programs dating back to 1997. MIUSA has become an international leader in promoting the rights of women and girls with disabilities.
In 2000, bolstered by alumni returning to make changes in their countries, MIUSA began working to bridge the international development and disability communities to ensure international development and relief activities and projects were accessible and inclusive. MIUSA pioneered inclusive development from a rights-based approach by training governments, disabled people’s organizations and NGOs to include disabled people as both leaders and beneficiaries. As the first disabled people’s organization to join InterAction, the largest umbrella organization of U.S.-based international NGOs, MIUSA became the catalyst for establishing InterAction’s Private Voluntary Organization Standards on Disability.
MIUSA has grown from a tiny grassroots dream to an international voice for the rights of people with disabilities. Today, MIUSA is part of a great family of people with disabilities and allies, working together to share our experiences and strategies so that those who follow may have a wider and easier path to achieving their human rights. MIUSA's publications, videos and awards speak passionately of the work completed. MIUSA remains diligent in efforts to lead the United States and move the international community forward in cross-cultural understanding, disability rights, and the development of local leadership capacity by people with disabilities worldwide.
Download “Celebrating MIUSA’s Story” for a timeline of our activities across the decades and more.