Ireland is known for many things. In the short few months that I’ve been here, I’ve found that its reputation for arts and culture, friendly people, beautiful scenery, and lively atmosphere is well deserved. Fewer people know that Ireland is actually a hotbed of activity in the area that is my personal passion: disability and development.
Disability is a long neglected subject in the area of international development and global health. There’s over 1 billion people in the world today with a disability. Ninety percent of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school. Mortality rates for children with disabilities are estimated at over 80% in some countries. Yet you never hear about this issue and it got no mention in the MillenniumDevelopment Goals. I want to change that and I’ve found people here who want to as well.
The MSc in Global Health was my first choice graduate program in part because it has faculty that focus on making health systems and societies more inclusive for people with disabilities. So far, I could not be happier with the program (even if at the moment approaching project deadlines have me a wee bit stressed). The classes have had very stimulating lecturers and my cohort of 16 students from Ireland and around the world have formed a really tight bond already sharing our different experiences both in class discussions and over a pint in the evenings.
However, some of my most rewarding moments recently are due to the opportunities I’ve had outside of the classroom to really engage with members of the small but growing community of international development and global health practitioners working on disability issues.
Since October, I’ve been interning at Special Olympics Europe-Eurasia. Special Olympics is a major part of my family life: my sister is a Special Olympics athlete, my mother is our Local Coordinator/Head Coach, and my youngest sister and I have been involved since elementary school, first as a Unified Partners and then as coaches. Having that experience at the grassroots level, it has been so amazing to work in the office responsible for coordinating programs and promoting the organization’s mission in 52 countries in the EU and Eurasia. They gave me a chance to apply my global health learning in their advocacy efforts, inviting me to write an Op-Ed on the Euractiv news site about the barriers faced by people with intellectual disabilities in healthcare and how they are trying to address it through their Healthy Athletes initiative. It’s incredibly inspiring to work with an organization that has made such an impact on me personally and to be part of it making an impact internationally.
In early November, I gave a presentation at the Irish Forum for Global Health Conference about the work I did as a Mosaic Fellow in Tanzania with our local partner on community based disability services. I had originally submitted my abstract, thinking it could be a good chance to help share my organization’s work, but I did not expect as many people to be there who were interested in doing similar things. Never before have I been to a Global Health event where one of the keynote speakers was focused on disability, much less to be working on it for the UN Development Program!
Finally, just last week I attended a workshop put on by an international disability NGO CBM Ireland and Dochas (a network of Irish development NGOs) on disability inclusive humanitarian aid. It included two representatives from CBM’s partner in the Philippines who themselves have disabilities and were able to share with us how they worked to make sure persons with disabilities were reached and their voices heard in the response to Typhoon Haiyan a year ago.
As you can see, I’m incredibly excited to see what this year will continue to bring in terms of learning and experiences. When advocating for an issue that for a long time has been sidelined and not considered “a priority”, it can feel lonely and overwhelming. There is so much to do, but being here and finding that there are many people and organizations that share the values of inclusion inspire me to keep working that much harder and I am hopeful that we will make progress if we keep working together.