Becoming a successful artist and founding a flourishing nonprofit doesn't just happen - it takes a certain perseverance and fearlessness. For Reveca Torres, the paths to those achievements run parallel to her paths from Chicago to England, from Arizona to Costa Rica.
In 2002, Reveca applied for MIUSA's U.S./England Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Disability Leadership Exchange Program. As a wheelchair user who had acquired a spinal cord injury at age 13, Reveca was eager to challenge herself and seek out adventure.
Michelle, who organizes Latinos with disabilities at Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, educates the community, people with disabilities, and their families about independent living and getting the opportunity to experience, for example, riding public transportation on one’s own.
In Colombia, where Michelle traveled for 10 days as part of a U.S. Department of State sponsored professional exchange program, the path to independence was not as straightforward. Few options for accessible transportation existed, and those that did were expensive.
Empower Partnerships created 19 teams, each a triad: A U.S. organization matched with two partner organizations from another country, one disability-led and the other committed to disability inclusion.
U.S. representatives first traveled to their partners’ home countries to gain an understanding of disability access and inclusion in their communities.
Inclusive classrooms. Empowered self-advocates. Independent living. Media-savvy activists. Accessible health services. Adapted sports. Access to Justice. English literacy. Protection from violence. All these accomplishments -- and more -- are the results of a new model for partnership and professional international exchange, involving 57 organizations from 20 countries, including the U.S.
Two partners from Serbia and one from the U.S. joined forces to reimagine the use of the media as a platform for disability rights advocacy. Media can be a powerful tool for empowerment. The rapidly changing media landscape gives people with disabilities the tools to tell their stories directly.
“The media have perhaps the most important role in disability advocacy,” said Jelena Jovovic of the Novi Sad School of Journalism in Novi Sad, Serbia. “We receive the majority of our information through the media and, based on this information, we form our attitudes.”
Jelena, along with Mima Ruzicic-Novkovic of Center Upright Living, a Disabled Peoples’ Organization in Novi Sad, and Beth Haller and Rhonda Greenhaw of Towson University’s Department of Mass Communication located in Maryland, USA, met in Serbia for a week to jumpstart their collaborations.
How do you describe a partnership that not only achieves its goals, but transforms the entire way in which each partner works? MIUSA's Empower Partnerships program simply calls it, “Team Macedonia.” With support from the U.S. Department of State, MIUSA brought together organizations from around the world for a new style of collaborative program designed to advance disability rights.
When asked why they had chosen to work together, the Association of Parents with Disabled Children (APDC) and All for Education! (AFE) National Civil Society Coalition made a simple but powerful prediction about their partnership: “Our voices would be louder together.” Given the challenge they faced, all their voices were needed.
Haziq sings a solo in front of his classmates at the closing ceremony of his weeklong reading camp. It’s a small crowd, and he hasn’t memorized the lyrics. Instead, Haziq is reading them from a screen at the front of the room. It may not seem like much, but to Haziq, it could be the very turning point of his life. And it took three people traveling halfway around the world and back to get him there.
Kimberly Tissot, Executive Director of Able South Carolina, heard the determination in the voices of her partners in the Dominican Republic: “We need to know how it is possible for you to be independent in the U.S., and how to make those changes here.”
Despite the pouring rain, women from all over Homa County in Western Kenya gathered in a classroom at the local college. The women came alone, or maybe with an aide, a guide or interpreter; some had a wheelchair, others crutches, but all came with a singular purpose — to learn about how to end gender-based violence against women and girls with disabilities.
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.
While Shmuel Kanner attended a presentation during his professional exchange to the United States, Naama Lerner sat with a computer next to him. She listened to the translation of the presentation from English to Hebrew, and then she simplified what was spoken and typed it on her laptop screen for Shmuel to read. The night before, he also received supplemental materials related to the presentation, so Naama could prepare him for the content being delivered. This was an accommodation for his intellectual disability.
When Mary Hodge, head coach of the USA Paralympic Powerlifting team, travels internationally for competition, others often approach her looking for assistance from the United States. In the past, uncertain of how to contribute beyond just money, she kept her interactions short. Now that Mary has connected with Armenians with disabilities as part of Mobility International USA (MIUSA)’s U.S. Department of State SportsUnited exchange, she has a different perspective.
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.