Along a bumpy dirt trail in intense summer heat, our group trekked through a lush Oregon forest. By this point, weeks after their arrival to the U.S. from the United Kingdom, the delegates of the UK exchange program had formed a strong working relationship allowing them to function like a well-oiled machine. If some lagged, others quickly adjusted. If one struggled, another lent a hand or a word of encouragement as they made their way down the trail.
As young disabled leaders and self-advocates, all of the delegates were already well-versed in recognizing their own needs and getting proper access for themselves. However, the diversity of disabilities among the delegates during the exchange program challenged everyone to recognize the needs and capabilities beyond themselves.
This theme of "exhaustive inclusivity," a positive term that meant any opportunity offered to one delegate should be available to all delegates, recurred throughout the entire program. Conrad Will, a delegate with a form of albinism, noticed the impact right away. "I was constantly thinking, 'Ok, so how can we make this work for the wheelchair users' or 'Can we get subtitles for this video?'" he reflects. "It made me much more conscious of other people's needs," he says.
The UK delegates took the concept to heart, and shared in the responsibility of finding creative solutions to include everyone, whether networking with local and national disability rights leaders, visiting an inclusive college campus or clearing blackberries on a service learning project. "We all helped each other in making sure that everyone played an important part in the well-oiled machine that the group formed," adds Conrad.
As these young activists return to their lives in the UK and champion the rights of people with disabilities there, they will draw from their two weeks in Oregon and their lessons in "exhaustive inclusion" to ensure that their work doesn't advance the rights of a few while leaving others behind. Vital to the success of the disability rights movement, whether in the UK, the U.S. or anywhere, is to practice the same principles of inclusion that we demand from others.
The hike at Silver Falls State Park was a prime example of this.
The U.S. /U.K. Youth with Disabilities Leadership and Empowerment Exchange Program is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in London and administered by Mobility International USA (MIUSA).