Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with a dozen advocates and people with disabilities from Iraq, Oman, Yemen, Kuwait and Jordan. The delegation – sponsored by the U.S. State Department and hosted by WorldBoston, a non- profit agency dedicated to increasing public awareness about issues of global concern – convened to find out more about a variety of disability policy-related issues, including the formation of the Disability Rights and Independent Living movements, assistive technology, community organizing, sports and recreation for individuals with disabilities and many other issues.
I wove the fabric of my own story of growing up with a disability into a discussion of how I and others in Massachusetts changed our lives as well as the lives of others, sometimes by resorting to civil disobedience to get the job done. I talked about living in an institution throughout my adolescence and early 20s and the struggle to fight for funding for the Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL) and community-based services, such as personal care assistance and opportunities to live in affordable, accessible housing. Detailing how we organized people with disabilities in the state, and eventually nationally, to advance the cause of the independent living movement helped illustrate how even small groups with a common cause and passion can make a difference. Changes in federal and state laws are the result of great sacrifice and struggle over 30 years to accomplish great strides for individuals with disabilities and arrive where we are today as a nation.
Despite a whirlwind two weeks in the U.S. and a packed agenda that started in Washington, DC, and brought the group from St. Louis to Boston, the group was remarkably attentive and engaged as they listened through their Arabic translator. Questions came readily, such as “tell me more about the ADA” and “how did assistive technology change your life” and “what organized sports do Americans have access to?” The questions were as varied as the people and countries represented in the room. They understood the logical progression of assisting individuals with disabilities transition into community living, with the next step of entering the workforce independently. MRC’s mission to assist people with disabilities so that they may live in the community and become employed was a natural fit with the group’s interests. We ended the forum with the realization that all of our countries, including the United States, have a lot of work to do before we ever see full community integration and acceptance. This small event was truly a global effort to develop an agenda for monumental change.
As part of the day’s agenda, the group visited the MRC-funded Assistive Technology Regional Center at Easter Seals in Boston. Karen Langley, director of Assistive Technology and Community Support Programs within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and technology center staff gave the group a tour of the Center and demonstrated some of the many innovations that assist people with disabilities and elders so that they may function more independently. Karen noted that the group was really taken by the Dragon Dictate software that enables speech recognition. They wanted to know how much it cost and where they could buy it before they left. Although originally designed for people with limitations in their hands to use a computer, they immediately saw the value to the general public and the universal design principle of “design for all.” They were also interested in books and videos written by people with disabilities telling their own stories. Peer support and peer role modeling clearly in evidence and something the group fully understood and appreciated.
Access to the internet will allow for this robust exchange to continue well beyond the few hours we spent together. An exchange of email addresses, helpful websites and YouTube videos of people with disabilities engaged the group and wrapped up the afternoon. The group was confident that by sharing these resources and bringing back their experiences in the U.S., they will change the beliefs and attitudes of many people in their own countries to open the doors for their independence as people with disabilities.
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