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 the only child in my Mongolian elementary school who was losing her hearing. At first I was considered disruptive and someone who should be sent home, but gradually my teachers realized I could study just as well as my classmates. Today, if I compare myself to them, I’m living better than most.
I was born with a visual disability and became totally blind by the age of 28. Over the course of my life I developed a strong desire to contribute to my country and strengthen the disability movement in Peru.
After returning home from WILD, I was very inspired and empowered to do many things. Being in contact with women with disabilities from other countries, who have rich and varied experiences, gave me new energy and motivated me to achieve my dreams.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”