Ripple Effects 3.3: A Path of Access in Uganda Through Texas

Flavia in graduation regalia smiles big standing next to her teacher with world map in the background.
An excellent teacher, a leader in the Ugandan disability community and a woman who loves to sing, Flavia has come far since obtaining her Masters from the University of Texas at Austin.

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Transcript

Justin Harford (JH): Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities abroad, brought to you by the National Clearinghouse On Disability And Exchange,, a project sponsored by the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational And Cultural Affairs and administered by Mobility International USA.

We know that international exchange  contributes to personal  and professional development. It can enhance one's confidence and skill sets, broaden one's perspective and shape one's  educational path. It can also influence job choices and employment opportunities. Let’s find out how. For this season of Ripple Effects, we will hear stories from international exchange alumni with disabilities and how their programs relate to their careers. This is part of a new initiative from the clearinghouse called, #LifeAfterExchange.

I’m Justin Harford, a Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA and your host for Ripple Effects.

Before Monica Malhotra became project manager for the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, she worked as an advisor in the International Student Office at the University of Texas at Austin. For this episode we get to hear her speak with a former student from Uganda that she worked with back in those days in Austin. Monica will interview Flavia Niringiyimaana, who got her Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction with the support of the International Fellowship Program of the Ford Foundation. The Fellowship is no longer available but its impacts continue to be seen and shared around the world.

Monica Malhotra (MM): Hi Flavia it’s great to have you speak with us today and share your experience studying at UT Austin which is where you and I met. So to begin, can you let us know why you applied for the International Fellowship Program and discuss some of the skills you gained reflecting back on your program?

Flavia Niringiyimaana (FN): Yes thank you so much Monica. I applied for the program because I wanted to advance on my education, and also because I was a leader by then. I wanted to help my blind people at home in leadership of which actually I gained a lot of knowledge from Texas and from Texas I got a lot of experience from that. Here in Uganda blind people are not independent. They don’t move alone. They need a sighted guide to go with them, but while I was in Texas I gained a lot of skills in mobility training. I was able to be trained and I was able to move alone in the streets of the US and I was able to gain a lot of skills that impacted me a lot here in Uganda. When I came back in Uganda, I benefited from the skills that I had acquired from Texas. I was able to move alone and I tried to sensitize my fellow blind people on how to move independently without depending on sighted people, because moving with a sighted person sometimes makes one too dependent, and they cannot move alone somewhere. So with that blind people have been able to move a lot, to be independent.

And I want to say I gained a lot of skills in the computer. When I went to Texas I had not had any skills in the computer, and right now as I speak I am very computer literate. I do appreciate that.

Another thing is that I am able to join many councils here in Uganda. We have university councils. Tomorrow I will be going to one of the prominent universities in Uganda, and I’m on the governing body. So I have also been facilitating workshops. I attend many conferences within the country, so I feel that the experience I got from UT has impacted me a lot.

With those experiences I am a person who is now famous in the country, and so many people consult me about many issues. When I talk about Texas some people ask how you got there. It was a challenge. It was a big challenge for me to go to UT, because so many people had applied. They had applied 1200 people and they wanted 16 people, and I was among those 16, and considering my level, I was really the luckiest I must say. So that one has made me famous in this country and very many people admire me sorry to say that.

MM: Don’t apologize at all. I think you are not only famous in Uganda but you definitely made your mark at the University of Texas at Austin, and you kind of left a legacy there. We all remember you. You made such an impact at the international office and with your program and so it was so exciting to work with you there.

FN: Yes I’m happy about that. I do appreciate it.

MM: So you are currently teaching in Uganda at a college. Can you tell us more about your work? Are you teaching students with disabilities or students without disabilities?

FN: Right now I’m not teaching at a school for blind people. I am teaching in a college, where there are sighted students. I don’t teach blind people. I am the only blind person in the college. That is a very big achievement, because it is very difficult for a blind person to get employment in a sighted school like this one in Uganda. So many people have negative attitudes, but because of the challenges that I made to the government they offered me a college to teach in.

MM: That’s great. How did you do that? Because it’s not only a challenge in Uganda but all across the world regarding the integration of people with disabilities in leadership positions… Teaching… Managing…anything like that. Sometimes there is that stigma. So, how did you change that and change other people’s perception when you came home and that was your goal was to teach special education… How did you achieve that?

FN: Well, my goal was not to teach special education alone, but I needed to teach curriculum instruction also. But here in Uganda people who have a master’s degree are not considered very much to teach in a university. They want those ones with PhD, so that’s why I was offered to teach in a college. In the colleges they take those ones with degrees and masters, and those who teach in college and the University, they normally have a PhD and I didn’t have that.

When I applied for the job to teach in a college, there was someone who was on the interviewing panel who was a Ford Fellow and he knew the challenges that I had gone through. And how I succeeded in Texas so that’s how they took me up.

MM: That’s good… Because we want to encourage people across the world to take advantage of the opportunities to come study in the US, and the Ford Program is no longer going but there are still many scholarships and many other opportunities to come study. This is great to hear how you can apply the skills you gained from your studies in the U.S. to your work to and different aspects of your life back home, so that’s good.

So when you studied in the US and in Texas specifically what surprised you about your experience?

FN: When I was in Texas I didn’t expect to get friends from there. Because I knew there were only Americans and there were no black people. But I must say that I enjoyed Texas because I had very many friends. Everybody liked me in Texas especially from the international office, and even fellow students and I must say you are one of my friends Monica that I met from Texas, and Mary Lou… There are so many other people’ that… I had so many friends from Texas, who write to me now and I had friends from the church and I must say that that is a great achievement that I have from Texas and of which I’m proud of.

MM: This is one of my very fond memories of you in Texas. You know I was there through the struggles and through all the achievements and everything and it was so exciting to hear all of those things with you, and to share that with you.

And the best part was when you walked into the office with your graduation cap and gown… Dancing and singing

FN: I was dancing… singing … I surprise everybody that was in the office and everybody came to listen to this blind woman from Africa dancing. I’m happy for that, and I must say that I had another good entertaining experience when Darcy and Teri made me a party, and I got so many gifts from the US. My professor gave me a gift. Darcy gave me a gift… Teri gave me a gift so many people gave me gifts and (inaudible) I am hanging them in my house…

MM: Do you remember how you were singing… I would love to hear it after so many years if you could still do it…

FN: I was singing:

Oh God is good oh God is good oh God is good he so good to me

Oh yes

He has made it for me oh he has made it for me he has made it for me so good to me

(inaudible)

Oh God is good Oh God is good Oh God is good God is good to me Oh God is good oh we’re from Africa

MM: Aww Flavia that’s great (laughter) I remember it all now very vividly. That was so nice

So, can you share with us how you were able to communicate the impact of your exchange program when you had job interviews and how you got the job you have today?

FN: Yes what I was able to respond to my interviewers regarding the question they asked me… The first question they asked me because they expected a blind person not to go to the US was how you went to the US. I had to tell them… I heard the announcement on the radio, and I applied. I did the interviews. And I went through. And the second question was how you experienced the flights. I said the flight was good… I went on the flight, and when I reach the US people were waiting for me and they took me to the University. And now they asked me… What do you think the blind people can do in order to teach…? Well I say blind people can do many things, so when you look at a blind person don’t look at the person as a blind person, but look at the person as a person and what the person can do. So, I say that a blind person is a normal person like just another person minus the sight. A blind person is a person who can articulate issues like any other person. Then they asked me “how you are applying for a teaching job… How are you going to teach?” I answered don’t ask me about how I will teach… Just give me a job and I will show you how to teach. I don’t need to write on the chalkboard in order to teach, so long as the students are mature enough, they are able to write, they can spell words then I’ll be dictating to them and the chairperson of the interview just laughed and said okay you can get up.

MM: (laughter)

FN: So that’s how I got the job. I was training teaching them while they were interviewing me.

MM: Yes and it’s like your motto… Don’t ask me just let me do it I’ll show you… Don’t ask just let me show you and no questions

FN: Yes because you see here in Uganda… People think that a blind person cannot do anything. They look at a blind person like somebody who is dependent, who cannot teach… Who cannot do any other job, but just there…? To eat and do all that. So that’s why I say don’t ask me this… Look at me as Flavia don’t look at my sight. My sight has nothing to do with my brain. If I was ever to go to Texas and got a masters degree, got a masters degree and I even defeated those ones who can see… Why not to teach? So that’s how I won the job. That’s how I got the job.

MM: Good and that’s great you know. It’s not only the impact it has on one person, but as a result you begin to change how society understands what people who are blind and people with disabilities can do. So that’s great! And what changes do you see happening in Uganda right now? Or in your community or anything like that for people who are blind or for people with disabilities?

FN: Yes right now… The living styles of blind people are now changing. Blind people are now getting employment. Although the majority are teachers, but we are happy because there’s no blind at home, with no job. Most of them are employed… Except that there is a lack of jobs everywhere in the world. So the blind people who have no jobs are like sighted people who don’t have jobs… It’s not that they are blind that they don’t have jobs it’s because there are no jobs.

MM: Great well thank you Flavia and we will speak to you very soon and thanks again for doing the interview.

FN: Yes thank you too Monica…

MM: Thank you we’ll speak to you soon.

JH: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this podcast please leave us a review on iTunes and consider sharing us with your networks. Also, let us know what you think on Twitter @MobilityINtL or Facebook mobility international USA using the hashtag #LifeAfterExchange.

And to learn more about #LifeAfterExchange go to www.MIUSA.org