In Pakistan people with disabilities are among the most vulnerable and dependent for assistance on their families. Often they find it challenging to get an education and find jobs due to lack of accessibility, proper accommodation, inclusion and proper laws to protect the rights of people with disabilities. I know this first-hand, as someone who is visually impaired and has gone through many hardships and faced many challenges. And yet, finally with the blessings of Allah, I graduated with a degree in law this year! I'd like to share about my international exchange experience which opened such possibilities for me and taught me about important concepts such as inclusion, independence, and full community participation.
My UGRAD Year
During the course of my degree, I had been to the United States on the Global UGRAD exchange program, which is a fully-funded semester-long program for undergradudate students to study in the U.S., experience U.S. culture, and polish leadership and professional skills such as public speaking and writing. I had been placed in Georgia College and State University (GCSU), where I took courses in English and pre-law. I wrote many academic papers throughout the semester, and to my surprise I successfully completed the semester with 3.75 GPA!
Because UGRAD is not only an academic program but also a leadership program, it's very important for students to get involved in their host campus and community. At GCSU, I had the opportunity to experience life in dorms, which is a great way to make friends with students representing diverse majors coming from different parts of the United States and even from different parts of the world. At GCSU, I was a member of the International Students Club, which is the most active organization of international students that do activities designed to celebrate world cultures. One of my favorite events was when ISC organized an International Dinner for international students to share dishes from their countries with the American students. During the dinner, I walked in a fashion show for international students to present their traditional dress!
Disability Access in the U.S.
Assistive technology makes things possible for people with disabilities. During my semester at GCSU, the university's Office of Disability Resources Centre and International Office not only assisted me with my academics but also with other activities on the campus. They provided me with human guides for walking around the campus, note takers to take notes for me in the classroom, and tape recorders to record the lectures. My experiences with accessibility were awesome, both on and off campus. The buildings were accessible, with automatic doors, elevators, and numbers in braille. People were also helpful, and I could always ask for assistance without any hesitation.
I also had the opportunity to spend one week at the Savannah Center for Blind and Low Vision, where I learned to use assistive technology and other techniques to live my life independently. I got access to screen reading technology like NVDA and VoiceOver as well as voice command technology such as Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa, which made me independent to great extent.
Participating in the exchange program taught me how to do so many things on my own. In Pakistan, I couldn’t move from one place to another without the assistance of my family members. But then, for the first time, I flew in a plane alone for thousands of miles to another country. Before my travel to the United States, I was unable even to use a cell phone or computer, but after my week-long stay at the rehabilitation center, I learned about different techniques and assistive technologies that made new activities possible. In a nutshell, my experience taught me that disability is not inability.
Messages for Pakistan's Disability Community
Years after returning to the United States from my UGRAD program, I participated as a panelist for a live session on disability awareness hosted by the US Consulate General Peshawar. I took part in this session because I am passionate about sharing information about disability access and resources available for people with disabilities. I also want to change society's attitudes towards people with disabilities to promote better inclusion. Hence this was a great platform to catch up with a large audience all at once.
Other panelists of this session included Saira and Asfandyar, both of whom are also alumni of U.S. exchange programs. The major points of their discussion were:
- Saira talked about the challenges she faces as a physically disabled woman, and she also discussed her work promoting the political rights of people with disabilities.
- Asfandyar shared about his work on the Pakistan Disability Act that has been forwarded to Senate for approval. This Act is Pakistan's counterpart to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Some of the important statements that I mentioned in the webinar included:
- People with disabilities are excluded from critical areas of mainstream society such as education, employment and politics. The parents of children with disabilities should advocate for their rights in order to promote inclusion in mainstream society.
- The government should take bolder steps to advance the rights of people with disabilities rather than giving small allowances for having a disability.
- People with disabilities face systematic discrimination and encounter a lack of access to public buildings and transportation.
- There are reserved seats for students with disabilities in schools, but there are no facilities available to assist such students.
- Mobility International USA, an organization which advances disability rights and leadership globally, can be a useful resource to people with disabilities.
Resources for Pakistanis Seeking U.S. International Exchange Opportunities
Students from Pakistan can learn about scholarships in the U.S. such as UGRAD, YES, Fulbright, SUSI and more through the following organizations and websites. Don't forget to follow them on Facebook and other social media for the latest news and updates!
The United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP) is a platform that helps Pakistani students fulfill their dreams of studying in the United States. Through unique educational and cultural exchange programs, USEFP provides opportunities to Pakistanis to study, research, and engage with international students, scholars, and professionals in the United States. USEFP is a Fulbright commission in Pakistan.
EducationUSA at USEFP operates three comprehensive advising centers in Pakistan, located in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. These centers actively promote U.S. higher education across the country by offering accurate, comprehensive and current information about accredited educational institutions in the United States.
U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs - Learn more about ECA-sponsored programs for Pakistani university students, musicians, high school students, women leaders, scholars, language teachers, and more.
Global Undergraduate Exchange Program in Pakistan (Global UGRAD-Pakistan) - Administered by IREX and sponsored by the ECA, Global UGRAD-Pakistan provides emerging youth leaders from diverse communities across Pakistan with the opportunity to attend American universities and colleges for non-degree academic study.