Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Reflections on GDDI 2022


MIUSA staff watch seeds of future collaborations take root between disabled women leaders and international NGOs at the 10th Gender, Disability and Development Institute in Oregon.

What if global disabled women activists and international development organizations formed partnerships to create a more inclusive world?

We might see a very intentional strategy among international NGOs to ensure that the 500 million+ disabled women and girls throughout the world would finally be included as both participants and leaders in all areas of international development, from emergency response to food security to health to democracy and governance and beyond.

We saw the seeds of such partnerships take root at the 2022 Gender, Disability and Development Institute (GDDI). Set in a beautiful retreat center in Eugene, Oregon, GDDI convened 15 representatives of 12 international development NGOs, coming from across the United States and even as far as Bangladesh. But their purpose wasn’t only to network among one another, but rather to engage in direct dialogue with 23 disabled women from 22 countries who are delegates of the Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD) exchange program. 

GDDI 2022 by the Numbers

  • The 10th GDDI brought together:
  • 15 GDDI participants (representing 12 international development NGOs)
  • 23 WILD Program delegates (representing 22 countries)
  • 8 MIUSA staff and resource people
  • 3 American Sign Language interpreters
  • 3 Certified Deaf Interpreters
  • 1 Captioner
  • 100+ supporters, host families, board members, and other members of the local community during the Community Celebration portion of GDDI

GDDI participants represented diverse organizations, working state-wide, nationally, and internationally to bolster global health, citizen diplomacy, democracy, labor movements, youth development and more. The organizations had a range of experience partnering with disabled people’s organizations or doing disability-focused projects, but what they all had in common was a drive to learn, explore, and advance in how their organizations can add a disability rights lens to all areas of their work, at the programmatic and organizational levels.

The participants themselves also represented many nationalities, ages, races, ethnicities and genders. Some participants identified as people with disabilities, although having personal or professional disability experience is not a requirement for participating in GDDI. We hope the international development field will continue to encourage and value disability representation and other diversity among international development practitioners and leaders.

A New Look for GDDI

GDDI has always been a highlight of the WILD program. In a typical year, it traditionally takes place over the course of four days and three nights at a rural retreat center in the country where we camp in tents and cabins, gather around a campfire, and invoke “toothbrush diplomacy,” a phenomenon in which some of the most important discussions took place in the shared bathrooms.

However, this year – a COVID year – the GDDI event looked quite different as we worked to implement pandemic-safe practices. We shortened the retreat to two days and met daily at a retreat space right in town, and participants commuted to their hotel each evening.

Planting Seeds

Given the tighter timeline and the absence of shared campfires, cabins and late night conversations, our priority was to provide ample opportunities for the GDDI participants and WILD delegates to network and engage in various formats, from plenary discussions to small group roundtables to one-on-one discussions shared over a meal or coffee. Communication access is key for such relationships to take root, which is why the event was conducted in English, Spanish, American Sign Language, and International Sign thanks to support from several teams of highly skilled interpreters and captioners.

One goal of the retreat is to start conversations in Oregon that continue after the participants and WILD women return to their communities, as they seek mutual partnerships, collaborations, and consultations. Participants even received packets of wildflower seeds in their welcome bags to symbolize GDDI’s objective to plant seeds for relationships and partnerships.

A man and a woman walk together along a garden path, smiling as they talk. The woman walks with crutches.
A GDDI participant takes a stroll with Norma, a WILD delegate from Indonesia, through the verdant retreat setting.

Top-of-Mind Topics

To kick off the retreat, MIUSA was honored to share welcoming remarks on behalf of two influential leaders:

Samantha Power, Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which has provided indispensable support to MIUSA’s work over the years (Read the Administrator’s opening remarks for GDDI here); and

Ann Cody, Senior Advisor in the Office of International Disability Rights of the U.S. Department of State. Ann’s welcome message concluded with these remarks:

“To the attendees of the Gender, Disability, and Development Institute, thank you for being partners and allies. You play an important role. 

Please continue to lead by making sure disabled women and girls are at the planning and decision-making table and included in all of your programs. Adding funding for reasonable accommodations to your budgets and making your organization’s website and public information accessible. When we talk about disabled people, it’s very important to keep in mind the broad range of people that that involves, including people with physical disabilities, as well as sensory, intellectual, and psychosocial disabilities. 

I want to thank you for your time and energy and commitment to this work. I know you’re going to have a very fruitful few days together. And I wish you all the best.”

GDDI sessions addressed Guiding Principles of Disability Inclusion, Moving from Inclusion to Infiltration, and highlighting best practices during “Striving for Excellence in Inclusive Development.” Open forums encouraged passionate yet practical discussion around the intersection of gender and disability in the areas of:

  • Gender-based violence
  • Youth
  • Media and story-telling
  • Health, and
  • Elections and political participation.

We could practically hear the wheels turning in every corner of the retreat space where people gathered as they exchanged first-person experiences, noted practical resources and strategies, and presented innovative ideas.

A group of women seated at a table, some wearing covid masks, some signing in sign language.
Esther, a WILD delegate from Rwanda (in purple t-shirt), addresses the “Elections and Political Participation” small group as sign language interpreters interpret and MIUSA staff take notes.

Let’s Celebrate

GDDI also provides space for celebration! In the evenings, after full days of absorbing new knowledge and making dozens of new contacts, attendees gathered for fun and fellowship. On the first night, a local musician led the group in an inclusive music circle, providing the melodies as WILD delegates and GDDI participants alike danced, played percussion, and signed or sang their visions and dreams.

The second night celebration reflected one very unique benefit to doing things a little differently this year. For perhaps the first time on a WILD program, we convened GDDI with our annual community gala, so that members of the local Eugene community – including MIUSA homestay families, board members, donors, and other supporters – could get a taste of the important work that takes place at GDDI. At this celebration of MIUSA’s 40th anniversary, we were honored to welcome the Mayor of Eugene Lucy Vinis who welcomed the crowd. Guests were also delighted by a surprise guest, Caesar the No-Drama Llama, who returned plenty of joyful smiles and hugs.

But the true stars of the night were the 23 WILD women who boldly stated their personal and professional dreams and aspirations: to be the first disabled woman to join their country’s parliament; to create programs to combat violence against disabled women; to apply for a Fulbright grant to study in the United States; to become a lawyer – to name just a few.

A group of women dance together, shaking or beating musical instruments. Some women wear purple WILD logo t-shirts, while others wear business casual clothing. Some women are non-disabled women, others are women with non-apparent disabilities, and another woman is short stature.
Putting the “loud” in Loud, Proud and Passionate, WILD delegates and GDDI participants join the music circle festivities, dancing and drumming together.

Planning for Action

Although the two-day retreat flew by, GDDI participants amplified the impact of their time with WILD delegates and one another by drafting action plans. In doing so, they outlined activities to initiate or implement in the next three and six months, at the organizational and programmatic levels. As part of their innovative and action-oriented commitments, these “disability access ambassadors” will:

  1. Contact WILD alumni in the countries where they work, connect with local disabled people’s organizations and leaders with disabilities.
  2. Engage young women with disabilities in participatory grantmaking and advisory councils as leaders and consultants.
  3. Work on an evaluation and capacity building tools for partners who are not specifically working with people with disabilities so that they can integrate people with disabilities in their work.
  4. Gain leadership buy-in on more focused disability justice work at their organizations.
  5. Incorporate disability inclusion more intentionally in DEI conversations alongside conversations on race, gender and other marginalized communities.
  6. Advocate for organizations to recruit more staff and board members with disabilities.
  7. Advocate for a part-time disability coordinator/consultant and/or build a disability inclusion advisory board to inform internal and external work.
  8. Discuss how to make our meetings, public events and outreach activities more accessible for people with disabilities.
  9. Incorporate a disability lens when reviewing upcoming proposals and in program design.
  10. Connect communications teams with resources from MIUSA and others to make sure website and social media are accessible.
  11. Develop a more formal budget for disability access, and budget for reasonable accommodations in business development proposals.
  12. Work with MEAL (monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning) team to reflect on disability-specific data findings.


Reflecting on the most important information gained at GDDI and how their work will change going forward, participants stated:

“I feel energized and grateful for the ability to meet the WILD sisters.”

“One important learning was experiencing the logistics of inclusion of all [types of] disabilities in one space and language justice. It was really helpful to see what that looks like in action.”

“Among the most important information I gained at GDDI were the concepts of infiltration and reverse infiltration.”

“What I’m taking from this experience are lifelong passion and friends.”

Likewise, an overwhelming number of WILD delegates cited GDDI as a major highlight of their time in Oregon, referencing the bonds of friendship and professional connections that they formed with the staff from international development NGOs. They anticipated that these affiliations with such high-impact organizations have the potential to change the lives of hundreds or even thousands of disabled women and girls around the world.

We look forward to when the seeds of new projects and strategies, which began at GDDI, will flourish into creating a better world.

Susan Sygall, MIUSA CEO

Ashley Holben, MIUSA Project Specialist

Appreciation for Participating and Sponsoring Organizations

We at MIUSA want to thank the following organizations for their participation in and valuable contributions to the 2022 Gender, Development and Disability Institute:

  • Solidarity Center
  • Oxfam America
  • Project ECHO
  • CORE Group
  • Anera
  • ChildFund International
  • National Democratic Institute
  • WorldOregon
  • World Pulse
  • Global Communities
  • Islamic Relief USA

Among these organizations, we want to especially recognize and thank MADRE, Oxfam America, IYF, and Islamic Relief USA for sponsoring GDDI.

Author: Ashley H

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