HANDS Professional Fellows explore Seattle in May 2016.
As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we are reminded of the crucial role that our local partners play in connecting global leaders to explore advocacy around disability rights. Disability Rights Washington (DRW) is a non-profit organization that protects the rights of people with disabilities statewide. Their mission is to advance the dignity, equality, and self-determination of people with disabilities. From its founding in 1972, DRW has worked to advocate for and protect the civil and human rights of people with disabilities using grassroots leadership development, litigation, public policy, systemic reform, coalition-building, self-advocacy development, and community education.
The World Affairs Council is honored to partner with DRW on such international exchanges as the Hands Along the Nile Development Services (HANDS) Professional Fellows Program, International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) projects such as “Disability Access and Inclusion in Japan,” and most recently the virtual program with Gold Star Awardee Vianney Sierralta, who made history in January 2020 by becoming the first deaf lawyer in Chile. Depending on the program, DRW will either meet with a group of international leaders for a discussion on their work or host an exchange participant for a Fellowship in which they work together on a longer project.
Andrea Kadlec (pictured), an Attorney with DRW says, “At DRW, we enjoy hosting international groups because discrimination and oppression operate in similar ways around the world, and it’s so useful to see what advocacy others have utilized. Hosting and meeting exchange participants is a great way to break down misconceptions and learn from each other.”
In 2016, DRW hosted HANDS Fellows Arbi Chouikh from Tunisia for a month-long Professional Fellowship on Disability Rights. HANDS aims to forge lasting partnerships between Americans and Middle Eastern countries in order to increase intercultural understanding. Arbi’s work centers around making voting more accessible to people with disabilities as well as preparing and encouraging more people with disabilities to run for political office. Arbi worked with DRW’s Rooted in Rights program, which produces videos and social media campaigns exclusively on disability rights issues, to produce a video on voting access in Tunisia, Towards an Inclusive Tunisia with Arbi Chouikh. The following year, Tina Pinedo, former Digital Communication Manager at DRW was able to travel to Tunisia for a reciprocal exchange experience and work with Arbi on the video, completing it in February 2017.
“We appreciated hosting and learning from Arbi; he is doing instrumental work around voting access in Tunisia,” says Andrea. “He came to Seattle during the Arab Spring and was exploring questions like: What do free elections look like? How do we ensure that people with disabilities have access to voting? How do we ensure that their votes count? Until his Fellowship, he had not worked with people who have developmental disabilities. When he met a professional advocate with Down Syndrome through one of our programs, he said that expanded his ideas around the possibilities of his work.”
Andrea specifically remembers another meeting in 2018 when DRW met with a group of disability rights advocates from Japan for the State Department’s premier professional exchange program, IVLP. DRW conducted a panel on “Teaching Disability Rights History” which covered education advocacy for students with disabilities:
“We discussed disability advocacy organizations and differences in our education systems. One of my colleagues said this meeting was a highlight of her career. The opportunity to learn about what disability advocates are doing in Japan in education was so useful. We discussed how they could incorporate what we’ve learned, and how to avoid the mistakes we have made. This was a good thought exercise around what works and what doesn’t, and it was a powerful collaborative dialogue.”
Over the years, DRW has hosted and met with Fellows and IVLP groups to discuss voting access, disability rights education, and services and protections for inmates with disabilities. In December 2020, Andrea and the DRW team met virtually with Gold Star Awardee Vianney Sierralta, who has been recognized as an IVLP alumnus who used her experience to benefit her community. Vianney first visited Seattle in 2017 as a participant in the “Women Leaders: Drivers of Social Change” IVLP. During DRW’s meeting with Vianney, they discussed the Rooted in Rights project through which DRW’s Seattle-based team of video producers, editors, and digital organizers partner with local coalitions and national advocacy campaigns to fight for the disability community. They also shared more personal stories about the joy they feel working together with other people with disabilities, the need for advocacy efforts to be led by members of the disabled community, and how to change negative media narratives and public assumptions about the lives of people with disabilities so that they too are recognized as full lives worth living.
Andrea says that DRW aims to continue hosting exchange participants through World Affairs Council programs. “We continue to meet with international visitors because generally, our world is getting smaller and smaller. We are seeing now with the Covid-19 pandemic just how connected we are. It’s important to investigate our systems and see how similar systems work in other countries. When you do global work, it gives you so much more depth into the intersections of disability justice.”
We are so grateful for our partnership with DRW and we look forward to connecting for many more years to come! Thank you DRW for welcoming our exchange participants and creating lasting connections that affect change across the world.
For more information on how DRW is serving the community and how you might be able to get involved, please check out the links below:
New to the Community Spotlight Series? Check out our previous Community Spotlights recognizing our amazing community partners and the lasting impact of exchanges!
By Camille Adkins-Rieck, Program Officer, Global Leadership Exchange