Professional Fellows Explore Disability Rights: From the Pacific Northwest to North Africa

The World Affairs Council of Seattle recently hosted a group of visitors from the Department of State’s Professional Fellows Program (PFP) in partnership with Hands Along the Nile Development Services (HANDS). The PFP is an intensive five-six week fellowship which brings emerging leaders from across the globe to the United States. Professional Fellow participants are selected from a rigorous merit-based application process and are expected to develop individual action plans in response to a particular challenge in their community upon their return to their home countries. Each year specific areas of interest are chosen for the program, and the themes for the 2016 PFP are environmental sustainability, economic empowerment, NGO management, and tolerance & conflict resolution.  

For the past two years, the Council has welcomed a group of Professional Fellows focusing on disability rights in the spring and women’s leadership in the fall. After Seattle, the Professional Fellows travel to Washington, DC, where they meet with 200 other Professional Fellows from around the world during a three-day Professional Fellows Congress.    

This program is a two-way exchange, and Americans who have invited Professional Fellows into their workplaces have the opportunity to travel overseas for a reciprocal exchange. In 2015, the Council helped facilitate reciprocal exchanges for four professionals from Seattle to Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. Staff from Seattle Children’s Autism Center and Outdoors for All were selected for the disability rights reverse exchange and staff from New Beginnings and the Refugee Women’s Alliance were selected for the women’s leadership reverse exchange.

The Professional Fellows the Council hosted in May 2016, were from Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. They participated in a month-long Fellowship with non-profit organizations focused on disability rights and advocacy including the Hearing Speech and Deaf Center, Disability Rights Washington, and the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library. When not working with their respective host organization, the Fellows had the opportunity to partake in site visits and meetings with a multitude of organizations including the Washington Access Fund, PROVAIL, and Microsoft. The purpose of these site visits is to receive a quick but comprehensive snapshot of the organization’s mission through the exchange of information. It provides a platform on which ideas can be discussed, investigated, and improved upon.

Fellows - Microsoft

The Washington Access Fund is a non-profit and Community Development Financial Institution that promotes access to technology and economic opportunity for clients with disabilities in Washington and Oregon. It provides funding in the form of loans for assistive technology such as power wheelchairs and hearing aids for individuals of all ages with any type of disability and funding for the training required to use the assistive technology. In addition, the Washington Access Fund has expanded its services to help clients better understand the financial system and how to manage money more effectively. They also offer support for budgeting and deliver information about asset building, asset training, and crediting. These financial services are equally important, as many individuals with disabilities have high medical bills and face discrimination within the job market. People with disabilities experience poverty at twice the rate of those who are able-bodied.

While in a meeting with the Executive Director of the Washington Access Fund, both of the Professional Fellows from Tunisia voiced their honest appreciation of how the organization supplied assistive technology to those in actual need. In Tunisia, some of the organizations that are responsible for distributing assistive technology are misappropriating the devices by giving them exclusively to friends and relatives. The Professional Fellow from Egypt noted that people with disabilities have very little choice when it comes to purchasing assistive technology, and it is relatively easy for companies selling assistive technology to sell their products above market value.

PROVAIL, another Seattle-based non-profit organization that helps people with disabilities, believes that everyone has the right to pursue the life they choose to live. PROVAIL strives to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities by providing employment opportunities, access to community programs, support services, and assistive technology. During a meeting with PROVAIL staff, the Professional Fellow from Morocco, who is the financial treasurer of his organization, was especially interested in how PROVAIl is able to offer so many broad services and opportunities to people with disabilities. A staff member from PROVAIL responded by saying that many nonprofits “have so many needs that they lose sight of where they sit… they try to be a one-stop shop.” PROVAIL acknowledges that there are many ways to help people with disabilities, and it does not try to offer every single service. Rather, it works closely with other community organizations and social support services, and will refer someone to another organization if the person could receive more specific and specialized assistance there. This encourages coalition building rather than competition between providers.  

The group also met with the Chief Accessibility Officer of Microsoft’s Accessibility Center. With such a worldwide and diverse customer base, Microsoft endeavors to create products that are globally accessible and easily usable for people from all backgrounds and circumstances. Microsoft Accessibility recognizes that everyone has different levels of technological proficiency, and the product design and development teams focus on creating products that are easy to see, hear, and use. Additionally, Microsoft Accessibility seeks to build collaborative relationships with a host of other organizations in order to raise awareness around improving access to technology for people with all types of disabilities.

In particular, the Professional Fellows were impressed with a project that developed from one of Microsoft’s Hackathon events, during which thousands of employees covering different departments at Microsoft collaborated on more than 2,000 projects. This particular project was designed to empower people with ALS who are users of a wheelchair by giving them the ability to freely move their chairs using just their eye movements.

Before returning to their home countries, the Fellows participated in a few local cultural events such as the annual Northwest Folklife Festival, a visit to the Space Needle, and an Argosy Harbor cruise. Upon their return to Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, the Professional Fellows will utilize what they have learned during their stay in the United States to begin working on their respective actions plans. The World Affairs Council looks forward to hearing more about their action plan success and about the Seattle-based disability rights advocates participating in the reciprocal exchange to North Africa later this year.

Argosy Harbor Cruise 

By Yale Warner. International Visitor Program Intern and

High School Senior at Seattle Academy