Thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, affirming the inherent dignity of every person, regardless of disability. The ADA protects prohibits discrimination by local and state governments; provides standards for privately owned businesses and commercial facilities, and against discrimination in the workplace; and, ensures equal access to healthcare, social services, transportation, and telecommunications. This landmark civil rights law has made a difference in the lives of all Americans - those with and without disabilities, helping us all live, learn, work, play, and contribute side by side. Thanks to exchange alumni, the ADA has also made a difference around the world.
Take Faizan Raza and his brother, Jawad, of Pakistan, who had an opportunity to visit the U.S. as exchange participants of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Through Abey KHAO, the brothers’ successful, deaf-friendly restaurant in Pakistan, Faizan and Jawad are bridging the gap between the deaf and hearing communities.
Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders program, has leveraged technology to equip underprivileged deaf youth and adults with the tools they need to pursue their professional goals and succeed in the workforce. Through a two-day event called Embassy Accra for Tech Camp Bolga, Toffa and her team trained participants in photography and in social media to enhance their communication skills and to strengthen their civic participation with society. The Action Foundation from focusing on a small group of schools, parents, and learners with disabilities, to building a grassroots movement transforming disability-inclusive development in Kenya. In October 2017, she led the creation of Somesha, a program that is reaching hundreds of teachers through immersion workshops and virtual peer learning.
Through the Professional Fellows Program, Maria had the chance to do her fellowship with the Institute for Community Inclusion, at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She says her experience in Boston helped her to see the possibilities for improving service in her community and identify huge gaps in early intervention services offered at home. Maria’s fellowship inspired her to build a support network of caregivers for young children with disabilities in Nairobi. She has also been actively involved in engaging local communities in the development and implementation of the national education policy for educators of students with disabilities. In 2019, she won aProfessional Fellows Alumni Impact Award (AIA) for her commitment to making a difference in her local communities.
A team of Armenian alumni have showcased their support for disabled youth by collaborating with professional dancers in a public performance. 80 dancers of all abilities gathered on the steps of Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Yerevan in 2016, waltzing in a flash mob to the tune of “Waltz of the Flowers” by Peter Tchaikovsky. The flash mob is part of a winning 2019 Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF) project titled “Unlimited Movement” led by a team of five Armenian exchange alumni to promote inclusivity and highlight the talent of those with disabilities.
For Azat Toroev, equipping disabled youth with the skills they need to become successful in their communities was inevitable. After his exchange experience in Fort Collins, Colorado with the Future Leaders Exchange Program piqued his interest in community service, Toroev drew on what he learned to empower disabled youth in his hometown of Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. He made certain that girls and persons with disabilities are not hindered by institutional and societal barriers, and introduced initiatives to equip youth with leadership skills. Eventually, stepping into the role as FLEX City Representative in the town, Toroev is responsible for strengthening the alumni community and supporting their own community service endeavours.
Andrey Tikhonov is a long-time activist for disability rights. Crediting his 2013 exchange experience with American Councils for International Education, Andrey was inspired by his time working with Chicago Lighthouse, a non-profit that serves the blind, visually impaired, disabled, and Veteran communities, to continue serving the disabled. Since his return to Russia, Andrew has worked to empower persons with disabilities through various forms of rehabilitation and to teach them how to live and succeed in their communities. His fellowship continues to inspire him as he advocates tirelessly for disability rights, and, working together with his wife, he hopes to empower young citizens with disabilities to find adequate mechanisms to protect their rights. They have set up a training course which teaches young people with disabilities to be active and to develop their own critical thinking skills through discussions on human and disability rights, as well as democracy and freedom. Andrey continues to maintain ties with his former host organization and to create linkages with fellow alumni through co-projects.
Exchange alumni Nora Al-Othman and Abdul Aziz Al-Mutairi turned toward the private sector to support citizens who have disabilities in Kuwait. Partnering with Training Gate International (TGI), a leading organization in assessing the needs of the disabled community in Kuwait, the alumni sought to educate and equip disabled citizens with the skills to succeed in the educational system, workforce, and society. Al-Othman attributes much of their success, including the rapid and sustained growth of TGI, to what she learned during her IVLP exchange experience.
Dr. Gilson knows first-hand the challenges a disability can pose, as she herself grew up with a visual impairment. Choosing not to let her disability hinder her curiosity and zeal for adventure, Dr. Gilson embarked on a Fulbright exchange program in China, where, traveling alone at times, she learned the value of courage and independence. Now an Assistant Professor of Education at Moravian College, Dr. Gilson is also the first disabled person to have been appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Dr. Gilson attributes her professional success to critical lessons learned throughout her exchange experience, including resilience, a resolution to never give up, and a bit of stubbornness.
Exchange alumni across the world are leading the effort in championing the rights of those with disabilities. To recognize the groundbreaking legislation of ADA, ECA launched the Access for All campaign to highlight the State Department’s commitment to promoting equal opportunities for persons with disabilities, and this program showcases ECA’s effort to provide inclusive opportunities for those seeking to harness international exchange. The collective work of alumni supporting the rights of disabled citizens and making a tangible difference in the lives of those with disabilities can be found on the Americans with Disabilities Act 30th Anniversary Facebook Page.