Advancing our Rights through International Exchange

Justin presents in front of a PowerPoint slide
For disability rights, international exchange shows different ways forward.

To advance the rights and leadership of people with disabilities globally, we must create consciousness of a shared identity and social struggle. That means we must support the goals of people with disabilities to do international exchange – to introduce them to those with similar struggles from other parts of the world and open up a forum to share solutions.

Whether they know it or not, international exchange has meaning for the work of the teachers, researchers, advocates, and lawyers concerned with basic access to education and employment with whom I spoke at the 2016 quadrennial General Assembly of the World Blind Union (WBU) and the International Council for the Education of People with Visual Impairment (ICEVI).

A man from Senegal, who had established a support center for students with disabilities at his university campus, was eager to keep in touch with us at MIUSA and to share about international opportunities with his students. The Human Rights Advisor for the WBU, who is from Argentina, perked up when I mentioned that we knew some blind people from Latin America who had received the Fulbright grant. Interactions like these influence worldviews for years to come.

Psychology researchers* have found that perceptions of injustice based on the group membership rather than individual characteristics are more likely to result in collective action. This finding is the basis of all successful community organizing, which in its early stages largely consists of one-on-one conversations and community gatherings.

My goal was to communicate the ways that international exchange, such as studying in the United States, could help delegates imagine better things for themselves and their countries.

It was clear that they had already begun exchanging and imagining through general sessions, tea breaks, lunches, pool time, and breakout meetings.

During a panel session on youth involvement, representatives from Europe presented on how they organize international exchanges, bringing blind and visually impaired young adults from across Europe together through online conversations and in person recreational activities.

In another panel on changing perceptions, a man from Uganda stood up and declared that the experiences of panelists from Liberia, Spain, and the United States helped him to realize the importance of acting together in order to meet our shared challenges.

Through these interactions, up and coming young leaders came to realize that many of their struggles – unemployment, lack of access to textbooks, low wages, and the exclusion from public and private life – were shared.

Through presentations and networking delegates observed what others had gained, and realized what was possible despite what they have been given to believe in their own countries.

They were agitated into wanting more, and outfitted with the tools, hope, and determination to get it.

* Works Cited: Smith, H. J., & Ortiz, D. J. (2002). Is it just me? The different consequences of personal and group relative deprivation. In I. Walker & H. J. Smith (Eds.), Relative deprivation: Specification, development, and integration (pp. 91–115). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Justin Harford