The most fascinating, and therefore rewarding, part of my U.S. experience was being in Washington, DC during a U.S. presidential election (2004). Through the U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program, I had an opportunity to conduct research at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) during a sabbatical leave from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
A neighbor once told to my mom that there was no space for people with disabilities after graduation, that I should stay home to learn sewing, embroidering, or doing housework.
Handiwork and household jobs were popular for girls with disabilities in the 1990s, and I recognized many people with disabilities in general stopped their education because of discrimination. I tried to convince my parents to give me an opportunity to study further and expressed my expectation to live independently. It took me long time to get an approval from my parents.
My life was full of obstacles, difficulties, disappointments and stress as I was born with cerebral palsy in Armenia. However, due to my great willpower, industriousness, and optimistic character I have been very successful in my life.
Before I participated in the Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability in the U.S., I was very shy. I had never traveled alone. After I returned to Armenia from WILD, I wanted to change everything. As that desire grew and thanks to a grant from the Global Fund for Women, I took the first steps to found my own organization.
I was born in Cambodia and contracted Polio at nine months old. Even at a young age I dreamt of becoming a leader for people with disabilities, traveling to different countries, and living independently.
In Nigeria, my culture places so much emphasis on the physical beauty of girls and women. As a polio survivor, I know that this notion causes most women and girls with disabilities to perceive their bodies as being unattractive and unacceptable. In turn, women and girls with disabilities treat their bodies with less value, which of course has serious implications for their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Jeanette Lee has been a part of the Disability Rights Movement since its inception. Though she describes herself as shy, Jeanette’s strong voice as an activist has aided in creating a society in Australia that is constantly becoming more accessible.
During her studies in Melbourne, Jeanette was told by one of her mentors that ‘the world is not made for wheelchairs,’ and that she was not ‘being realistic’ with her situation. From this disappointment in leadership grew a greater desire for justice in the world.
Gohar Navasardyan is the only female athlete playing with the Pyunic Center for the Disabled’s wheelchair basketball team. She powers her chair across the court with strength and grace, as she does when she’s on the dance stage. Armenia doesn’t yet have a women’s wheelchair basketball team, but there is momentum to create new sport opportunities for people with disabilities across the nation, fueled by MIUSA’s U.S. Department of State sponsored Sports for Success professional exchange program.
For Jagoda Risteska, the true measure of success is “to enrich someone else’s life in a way that you never remain the same.” From that perspective, the disability advocate reflected that her U.S. fellowship has been very successful.
I feel so lucky to have had the chance to join the five-week International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Along the official route, which included Washington D.C., Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Charlotte, and Louisville, I visited several organizations and institutions dedicated to empowering people with disabilities to participate in many aspects of mainstream society.
Never underestimate the power of disabled women.
Especially when they’re WILD women fighting their way to the forefront of the social debates, strategic planning sessions, and discussions about ending violence, illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, and inaccessible health services.
How do short term international exchanges advance equal rights for people with disabilities? It starts with an individual taking action.
For Lizzie Kiama, a disabled activist from Kenya, an afternoon spent on a YMCA basketball court in Oregon, USA, gave rise to a new idea. “This was when my dream for Women & Wheels was born,” says Kiama who has a physical disability. “I had the opportunity to take part in Wheelchair Rugby, and I knew I had to play the sport again.”