IVLP Impact Awards Alumni Discussion Series: Inclusion and Accessibility for Disability Rights


Through the IVLP Impact Awards Initiative, recent alumni of the International Visitor Leadership Program administer community impact projects that bring the experiences of their exchange program home to their communities and promote innovative solutions to shared global challenges. 

On Wednesday June 12, 2024 Meridian International Center hosted a virtual panel of IVLP Impact Awardees with projects that that worked towards empowerment, advocacy, and awareness for disability rights within their respective communities. The panel was moderated by Anush Aslanyan (Armenia) and featured panelists Betty Nancy Fonyuy (Cameroon), Ras Adiba Radzi (Malaysia) and Md Nazmus Sakib (Bangladesh) The Awardees discussed their IVLP Impact Awards projects, how their IVLP exchange program experience influenced their ideas and work, and the ways they engaged their communities to raise awareness and foster a sense of inclusion for people of all abilities.  

Some of the top takeaways from the discussion were:

1. "Disability rights are basic human rights"

This sentiment was shared by Julie Sherbill, who shared opening remarks from the Office of International Visitors at the U. S. Department of State. She set the tone for the session by stating, "When systems, environments, and design choices center people with disabilities, everyone benefits...Persons with disabilities have the same rights as all people to access equality of opportunity, inclusion, and full participation in society." Next, the panelists introduced themselves and shared about their IVLP Impact Award projects. Anush discussed her project, which involved producing a series of 15 videos featuring people with disabilities who "make or cook amazing, delicious foods" while discussing their daily lives and living with "the challenges [and] needs with regard to their disabilities." However, Anush also shared that the videos (available with English subtitles on her web profile) highlight the positive aspects of daily life for the participants as well. Next, Betty discussed her project's focus on advocacy and raising awareness in Cameroon for youth with disabilities. Nazmus explained that his project engaged two groups, "youth with disabilities and mainstream student political organizations," to empower this often politically disenfranchised group, bridge the social gaps, and empower all youth in the political process. Last but not least, Ras shared her project, which filled a gap in Malaysia, where she created the first dance workshop of its kind. The workshop did not just include dancers with disabilities in an observational capacity, but rather, it centered on people "who are of different disabilities, and they include the deaf...and also some of my friends who are physically challenged" and gave the participants a chance to express themselves fully through this creative medium.

2. "IVLP was the best thing that has ever happened to me"

This was Betty's response when asked what inspired her from her IVLP exchange experience, Human and Civil Rights for Marginalized Communities, which World Learning organized. Betty mentioned her visit to Manhattan Star Academy, where she remarked, "I saw how the team was working with the children; it motivated me a lot. We also spoke about how youth with disabilities can take part in activities in the communities." Nazmus, who was a participant in the IVLP Project Not Too Young to Run – Engaging Youth in the Political Process, organized by Mississippi Consortium for International Development, reflected that IVLP was a "...transcending experience... It's a great privilege to meet different stakeholders, cultures, and perspectives." He specifically spoke about visiting the organizational headquarters for Black Girls Vote in Baltimore, saying, "It really inspired me. As a person with disabilities, I feel the same way, left behind from the political process...so I really translated or converted the Black Girls Vote idea into a disability or youth disability perspective [in Bangladesh]." He also mentioned his visit to Charlotte, where he was impressed by the advocacy work of organizations led by people with disabilities. Additionally, Nazmus shared that he is still in touch with his IVLP cohort, and he even reached out to get their advice while designing his IVLP Impact Award project. Anush and Ras's projects were both organized by Meridian International Center. Anush was a participant in the IVLP Project A Global Moment in Time - Reflections on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility, while Ras is a recipient of the International Women of Courage Award. Ras spoke about the general sentiment, "the spirit, the strength, and the belief that all of you have for us, that no one's left behind is everything," she said, "For me, the inspiration is really the fact that we stand up together and we lift each other up and we empower one another."

3. 'Nothing about us without us'

This slogan and general sentiment were expressed at various times throughout the discussion by all of the four panelists, the majority of whom shared that they are people with disabilities themselves and are actively engaged in advocacy, awareness raising, and empowerment of the community through their IVLP Impact Award projects and beyond. The panelists spoke about the importance of inclusion and accessibility for people with disabilities into mainstream society, as well as the importance of accessibility, understanding, and accommodations for the needs of all members of the disability community. Ras put this well when she reminded the audience, "We have to realize that we're not just talking about one particular disability...all the Information and the things that we want to do...it has to be accessible for all our friends in the community...so for example, if you want to do a poster, that poster can't have too much information because our friends who have learning disabilities cannot comprehend...and if we want to do videos, it cannot have strobe lights because some of us would get seizures." These examples perfectly illustrate the types of "design choices [that] center people with disabilities" that Julie mentioned at the beginning of the discussion. Nazmus also spoke about unconscious biases that his project was able to highlight among non-disabled members of his community, "Usually [when] politicians and other civil society and even common people think about persons with disabilities they are not well spoken, or they have very limited skills and capacities." Nazmus shared how his project challenged this perception by underlining the diversity among people with disabilities and providing a platform for youth to "uphold their courage and talk about their rights."

4. "Then I knew we got something right"

This is the feeling Ras shared when relating a success story from her project: after the dance performance, "When I saw the parent of one of the disabled child[ren] who performed, the parent cried. So, when the mother and father came up to me and just held my hand and cried…they said that 'How do you do this? How did you manage to get my child out of his own quiet world? He cannot speak and he cannot hear, but when he is on the dance floor, he's beaming, he's smiling, he's confident.'...So yeah, I think the most important thing is being able to see the glint in that child's eyes when he started to dance." Betty also shared a success story: "My memorable moment was when persons with disabilities contacted me from all over the nation, and they were so touched that I could be their voice…to speak about the rights of persons with disabilities [since they had been] struggling to be heard…now they handed the baton to me and said 'we are looking up to you' and that is when I knew that I have something that I have to offer to my nation."

5. "First you have to believe in yourself"

This was Betty's advice to activists and organizers interested in pursuing similar projects. She added, "ask for help, because you cannot do it all by your own...this project would not have been effective if I did not include persons with disabilities in the project." In addition to recognizing unconscious biases, Nazmus also recommended familiarizing oneself with the international frameworks and guidelines around disability rights, such as the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, reminding us that "impairment is not the cause for exclusion, [it's] barriers that cause exclusion" he also warned of the harm that can be caused by over-sympathizing with people with disabilities, rather than centering the authentic voices of the people whose rights are being promoted. Anush closed the session by sharing, "I like challenges, for me challenges make my life more interesting...all my life I'm using challenges as tools [to] achieve more goals. This is my first advice to other people, especially people with disabilities...you should respect yourself, you should start from you, and then change the community."

"The one that makes us disabled is not us, the one that makes us disabled is actually people's mindset" - Rad Adiba Radzi

If you have any questions, please reach out to the IVLP Impact Awards Team at IVLPImpactAwards@meridian.org.

If interested in attending more IVLP Impact Award events, click here.

Project summary

IVLP Impact Awards Alumni Discussion Series: Inclusion and Accessibility for Disability Rights | June 2024
Regions: Africa, Europe and Eurasia, South and Central Asia
Countries: Cameroon, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Armenia
Impact Areas: Human and Civil Rights