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.
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.”
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.
Denise works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service. She has been blind from birth and has always loved languages. Her study of French and Spanish began in high school and continued through college, where she was a language major. As Denise enhanced her language skills, she sought out opportunities to get involved in international exchange, but encountered barriers related to her disability.
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.
In many ways, Christy Smith is the ultimate survivor.
She was born premature and weighed just two pounds at birth. When she pulled her breathing tube out as a baby, she became deaf. Later, she became the first Deaf person on reality TV when she starred on the Amazon edition of CBS’ popular reality TV show Survivor. She lasted thirty-three out of thirty-nine days before she was ousted and finished sixth.
Christy is more than just a survivor. She’s also an adventurer, a world traveler, and an advocate for Deaf communities everywhere.
Stephanie Blum, who is a personal agent at Full Access in Eugene, Oregon, traveled to Jerusalem and Kiryat Ono, Israel as a part of MIUSA’s Empower Partnerships for Inclusive Communities program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. While there, she partnered with a nonprofit for people with disabilities along with a higher education institution to work on self-advocacy and independence for people who have intellectual disabilities.