Social responsibility: The time for action is now

Social responsibility: The time for action is now

Now more than ever, we are witnessing how people with disabilities, and their allies, worldwide are coming together to claim their human rights. These efforts include the rights of people with disabilities to higher education and the right to freedom of movement through international education and the personal growth, professional benefits, and social awareness that come from these opportunities.

The growing ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is facilitating this movement to claim the rights of those with disabilities. The CRPD sets the international gold standard that can guide our role as international educators.

Many governments, foundations, and higher education institutions have already responded to a call to action to recognise the rights of people with disabilities by promoting values of inclusion, equality, and accessibility in their mission statements or foreign policy goals. Judith Heumann, who serves as Special Advisor on International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State, recently wrote, “At the [U.S.] State Department, we are committed to the inclusion of disabled people in our exchange programs, to ensure that they have the opportunity to learn from each other, and to learn from our experiences here in the United States. In the end we are all stronger and more knowledgeable.”

International educators are key to opening doors

Too often, we in the international education field are satisfied with creating a space for intercultural exchange – yet we do not take the next step of inclusive action. As professionals in the business of creating tomorrow’s global leaders, we are key to unlocking the doors of change, especially for people with disabilities whose rights are part of a growing social justice movement. We can recognise our part in neglecting the issues and create more opportunities to give it voice. We can recognise our part in constructing barriers in our own spheres and move them out of the way.

Taking action

How can we as administrators move from stated ideals and intentions to meaningful and tangible actions? This can come in the form of:

  1. Modification of policies
  2. Budgeting for inclusion
  3. Changes to our programmes to make them more universally inclusive
  4. Negotiation of partner agreements that respect non-discrimination statements and removal of barriers on a local level.

Practical how-to information, training, and identification of resources for the practitioners in the field can supplement these actions to create more sustainable programmes with fewer barriers. Investment in foreign language and skill training, such as on assistive technologies, is crucial for levelling the playing field since people with disabilities may have not had equal access to this training to be ready and competitive. Tracking participation to show results, and sharing successes to dispel myths keeps this inclusion policy at the forefront.

Teaching social responsibility goes both ways

By taking responsibility for including more people with disabilities in international mobility opportunities, we also model inclusion at work for other exchange participants and local community members. We can make sure all people, with and without disabilities, come into contact with the disability community where they are studying and facilitate how they process what they experience.

Dan Erchick, who is an amputee, got involved with Rice University’s Beyond Traditional Borders which carries out engineering for global health. As a young person growing up in the US, he had little interaction with other disabled individuals, and disability was something he tried not to think about.

“Now for me, the heart of the issue is that everyone, disabled or not, faces certain disadvantages or advantages, and as a society we must level the playing field so that all have access and opportunity to enjoy the essentials of life – education, health care, employment, marriage, etc. Ultimately, it was Sierra Leone’s disability community that helped me to realise this, and the individuals I worked with are some of the strongest, most enlightened people I’ve ever met.”

A global responsibility

Disability is an important part of human diversity, representing the world’s largest minority, and yet people with disabilities are often underrepresented, similar to other groups, in many sectors of society. By including people with disabilities, international education professionals can diversify programmes and offer these life-changing experiences to a broader population. The world needs all its citizens involved.

Someone once said to me, upon reading an essay I wrote about my work with disability rights and international exchange, “The world of humanity is such a big force with its own momentum for thousands of years; no one pays much attention to your intentions, as they do to your actions.” We have the ability and responsibility to act towards realising the rights of people with disabilities more fully. Join us in taking the next step when the opportunity for action crosses your path.

By Michele Scheib, Project Specialist, Mobility International USA

Check out these useful links for best practices and resources on disability inclusion:

National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange

EAIE Special Interest Group ACCESS