Toward The Best of Our Abilities
According to the UN, there are now 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide, a number that encompasses 15-20 percent of the population.
In the World Health Organization’s first World Report on Disability, Stephen Hawking writes, “We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities.” A key way to unlock this vast potential is to include those with disabilities in international volunteer and development programs. Doing so empowers both the volunteers and the communities they work with, while also helping to eradicate long-held stereotypes about disability.
Volunteers with disabilities have many unique assets to offer programs, as Shannon Coe discovered in Paraguay while volunteering with the Peace Corps. Coe, who has polio and uses a wheelchair, says she worked on projects with disability rights organizations, spoke to the Paraguayan government, and appeared in the national media showing the lack of access for Paraguayans with disabilities. She even had the opportunity to talk to the president of Paraguay about disability awareness. “Many people told me that they never thought a woman with a disability could work, live independently, have an education, and be in relationships,” Coe says. Through her volunteer experience, Coe was able to shift perceptions about disability in a way that non-disabled advocates could not—by leading through personal example. She also encouraged women with disabilities, who face additional discrimination due to their gender, to become leaders and contributors in their communities.
Megan Smith, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, had a similar experience during her volunteer work with Cross Cultural Solutions, a paid volunteer placement program. She spent three months in Costa Rica teaching in a special education program, working at a center for the elderly, and volunteering at a physical therapy center for babies. “What the [Costa Rican community] saw was a young girl who was severely disabled in their eyes and she had something to contribute, whereas in their world, disabled people always needed their help,” she says. They realized that “Even their kids who are disabled, while they may need help, they can still contribute.” Through their contributions, Smith and Coe are both part of the process of unlocking the vast potential of people with disabilities.
Haben Girma, a deaf-blind woman who worked on building a school in Mali with buildOn, agrees. “The media typically portrays people with disabilities as utterly dependent,” she says. “Volunteering pushes those stereotypes aside, allowing individuals with disabilities to carve out their own identities instead.”
Through volunteering, young adults like Girma and Smith become leaders in the community of people with disabilities, both abroad and at home. Girma is now a student at Harvard Law School while Smith has gone on to volunteer in countries as varied as Afghanistan and Nepal. Smith’s initial experience was so successful that she followed up her volunteer work in Costa Rica with a three-month stint volunteering in Peru. Both were fifteen when they first went abroad to volunteer, and both discovered newfound confidence and skills while overseas, which have in turn given them an international focus in their careers. “A volunteer experience abroad, especially at age 15, builds good character and self-esteem like no other experience,” Girma says. “I returned from Mali wiser and even more ambitious than before. If I can do that, I can do anything. My parents also felt more comfortable allowing me to explore the world on my own after Mali. It was a stepping stone for all of us.”
Smith’s experiences in Costa Rica also led to more personal independence, and she found that she was able to pass this knowledge on to the community of people with disabilities. Sometimes she would go to the movies with other girls from her special education class. “It got them to see a world where they were independent,” she says. “They could go out and do things that other teenage girls did.” This independence, which can easily be taken for granted in the United States, is less common in many developing countries where disability is more prevalent and stereotypes about the limitations of people with disabilities are commonplace. Through her newfound independence, Smith became a role model working to empower other young women with disabilities.
One of the highlights of Smith’s experience in Costa Rica was teaching a sex education class. She discovered that her students felt more comfortable talking about the topic because she also had a disability. “It wasn’t like I was [just] some foreigner that came to help them,” she says, since her disability automatically gave her insider status. “I was able to enter the community. I was able to be accepted.” As a result, she could reach her students in a way that her non-disabled peers could not. Coe was able to do the same in Paraguay, where she helped youth with disabilities find jobs and expand their opportunities.
Their experiences raise a critical question: could teachers with disabilities sometimes be more effective in reaching students who have disabilities? International development organizations might be wise to pursue this question further.
Smith’s volunteer experience was so successful that her picture now features prominently on Cross Cultural Solutions webpage for people with disabilities who want to volunteer. She was told that she was the first wheelchair user to volunteer with the organization. “They seemed to have a really open mindset,” Smith says. “With a paid program like that, they have the capacity and resources to accommodate someone who has a disability.” Ultimately, the accommodation she needed was simple—a board that she could place across steps to make buildings accessible. “It wasn’t as much work as they thought it would be and they realized they could do it,” she says. Since then, Cross Cultural Solutions has become more committed to full inclusion of people with disabilities.
Coe’s experience also had a tremendous effect on the Peace Corps. When she originally applied, she was told that her disability would be a liability and that the Peace Corps wouldn’t be able to accommodate her. Coe spent 22 months pushing to be included before the Peace Corps finally offered her a placement in Paraguay. Ultimately, she says her success changed the way the Peace Corps looks at disability. “In the end, they sent filmmakers to record my work and now they use my story in Peace Corps promotional materials. By advocating for ourselves and those who are marginalized, we are changing the world for the better.”
Paradoxically, the very advantages that volunteers with disabilities can offer are also potential challenges. While volunteers can effectively dispel stereotypes in the long term, they often must deal with discrimination during their experiences. Not only is this stressful, it also creates an environment in which volunteers may feel forced to try to compensate for perceived shortcomings.
In addition, the physical environment itself can often be a barrier, such as in developing countries where buildings lack ramps or accessible toilets. In these situations, volunteers with disabilities need to think creatively. For example, Coe grew accustomed to using a regular chair with a bedpan attached in place of a toilet when abroad. Before her placement in Paraguay the Peace Corps recruiter asked what she would do if the area was not accessible. “I told them all of my creative ways to get around: how it gave me ways to connect with local people; how if I ever got stuck, I would ask for help; how I would use the bathroom. Each time they came back with a potential barrier, I would come back with a concrete example of how I approached that barrier abroad.” Dealing with these barriers involved additional preparation, resourcefulness and creativity, and wherever possible, these adaptations can work towards paving the way for future volunteers with disabilities.
As development organizations continue to look for ways to work with international communities and partners, they should consider the unique talents that volunteers with disabilities can provide. According to Coe, professionals in the international development world also need to reconsider their perceptions about the community of people with disabilities. “They have programs to help people with disabilities, so it is hard for organizations to see people with disabilities as workers who can contribute to the development work,” she says. However, as Coe, Smith and Girma have shown, these individuals have expertise and personal experience that can positively transform entrenched stereotypes even as they empower and build confidence in themselves and a new generation of leaders worldwide.
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Monthly Developments Magazine, www.monthlydevelopments.org.