Finding Her Stride in a New International Career

Group photo of people from different countries with different disabilities, many in traditional dress
Rebecca Berman (second from left, in back row) welcomes a group of visitors from the Middle East and North Africa.
A young professional and disability inclusion advocate uses a series of strategies to maintain balance in the exciting but ever-shifting field of international education.

Rebecca Berman is about to achieve a significant milestone: her one-year anniversary working with World Learning is fast approaching. Since learning about the organization's work in international education and development as well as its commitment to disability inclusion, Rebecca knew it would be a good fit for her. Over the past year, she has come to appreciate the importance of finding balance in various aspects of her work.

Balancing Act I: Disability-Specific Programming and Disability Mainstreaming

As a Program Associate, Rebecca supports World Learning's role in administering the U.S. Department of State-sponsored International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), bringing leaders from around the world to Washington, D.C. and host communities across the United States for professional development. Although IVLP leaders represent a variety of professional fields, it just so happened that one of Rebecca's first projects entailed working with a group of disability activists from the Middle East and North Africa. Hosting this disability-focused group, Rebecca connected the leaders with disability organizations and resources for inclusive education and employment.

Conversely, but equally important towards cultivating a more equitable world, Rebecca also seizes opportunities to initiate dialogue on disability before a broader audience. Recently, World Learning sent Rebecca to a regional summit on women's empowerment and leadership around the world, for which she participated in a panel on the challenges and opportunities faced by women with disabilities. With global leaders and IVLP staff and alumni in attendance, the panel reached individuals who may not otherwise hear perspectives on disability.

"I hope that through my presence, people have learned to be more aware of barriers facing people with disabilities in general, and ways to help remove them."

Balancing Act II: Diversifying Disability Experiences

Although Rebecca values the opportunity to share her own point of view as a person with a disability, she is also mindful that her experiences do not necessarily reflect those of other people with disabilities.

"Since everyone’s experience with disabilities varies, I always try to bring in other experts to share resources and feedback on enhancing accessibility."

It's a value that she says World Learning upholds through its proactive approach to hiring not only staff with disabilities but by hosting interns with disabilities as well. As a host site for the Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program, World Learning has hosted several talented interns with disabilities eager to break into the international education field, which Rebecca says creates opportunities for staff and program participants to see the rich diversity and variety within the disability community.

Balancing Act III: Seeking Middle Ground Between Advocacy and Endurance

In a field where there is still much work to do in the areas of promoting inclusion and accessibility - whether in exchange programs, global development, or diversifying the workforce - it can be especially challenging to prioritize one's time and energy.

"It’s a balancing act with both advocacy and preserving your energy for what will have the greatest impact."

Preserving energy is particularly critical for professionals with disabilities, whom Rebecca says often have to work twice as hard as other people to adapt to environments designed for non-disabled people. In addition to the already fine attention to detail that managing IVLP programming logistics requires, Rebecca, as a deaf person, reserves extra focus on lip-reading, which can be draining.

Staying Centered

Still, so long as barriers to inclusion persist, Rebecca is determined to stay the course in the fields of international education and development. If more people with disabilities participate in international experiences and careers, she believes they can change perceptions towards disability on a global scale.

"Our challenges with inclusion are far from over. I would like to continue being an advocate and technical advisor on inclusion - for both employees and program participants."

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in October, this story is part of a series spotlighting young professionals with disabilities gaining work experience in the field of international education. Get your foot in the door in this exciting field!


Ashley Holben