True to its name, the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) had predicted wisely when it counted Yulia Simonova among its “future leaders” in 2001. Although over a decade has passed since Yulia spent a year in the U.S. as a high school exchange student, she claims that the experiences that shaped her there continue to serve her in her current role as a disability rights leader and founder of non-profit organization Perspektiva in Russia. Yulia, who has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair, created this video to describe how.
My name is Yulia. I was exchange student 2001-2002 for Future Leaders Exchange Program. It was the great experience for me that I have never forgotten. I spent one year in Vancouver State Washington with wonderful host American family. I was so lucky to meet such a nice and active people to help me become more independent and confident. Of course I was afraid to go for a whole year to another country, but I wanted to see different life, get new experience, and know more about American traditions and culture and of course to have adventures.
Since I was 10 years old, I began to use a wheelchair after I fell down and broke my back, and it was a really difficult time for me because I couldn’t get around or go to school. Everything wasn’t accessible for people in wheelchairs ten years ago in Russia. That’s why this year in America was the most important for me, because I learned that people with disabilities should have the same rights, the same opportunities as other people. I went to regular school in America and participated in many activities like washing cars, cooking dinner for homeless people, helping children with disabilities. We traveled to different states with my host family and had fun together. I had many friends and really believed in myself. I didn’t feel I was different.
I wanted to bring my skills and experiences to Russia and help people and children with disabilities to improve their life. Now I can say I’m really independent, active, open-minded, and happy person. I worked in a Russian disability non-governmental organization Perspektiva, as an inclusive education project manager. I help children with disabilities to go to regular schools and kindergarten together with other children. I do trainings and educate teachers, professionals, parents, students about disability issues and inclusive education. I work close with changing attitudes and breaking down stereotypes people with disabilities face.
It’s very important to think about inclusion in the big picture of life, being included in school, community and work. I travel to different regions and country and always remember sharing my unbelievable experience in America. I like to work with children and I teach them English. I like driving my car very much, to spend time with friends and family, to go shopping and have fun, to take part in new and interesting activities, to get more experience, to meet new people, and I’m very thankful to everyone who I met during this time and make this year wonderful. And I want to say that everything is possible and dreams come true!
As Yulia speaks in the video, still photos from her FLEX year appear. One shows Yulia with other youth in wheelchairs as they wear harnesses to prepare to participate in a ropes course. Another shows her on a campus with non-disabled friends. In other photos, Yulia poses with her host family or visits sites in her host community such as a pier.
In an old photo, Yulia is seen existing an accessible van using a lift. In a short video clip, a modern-day Yulia lifts herself into her own vehicle and drives. We see photos of Yulia with youth, presumably those served by her organization, as well as colleagues. Video clips show Yulia at work, at her desk, making site visits, and being interviewed on camera. In the last clip, she blows a kiss to the viewer.