Graphic: The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement

Susan Sygall

Audio transcript: On Mobility International USA, and the difference between cultural issues and human rights issues
Date: November 19, 1998
Interviewer: Kathy Cowan

Note: Transcripts have been lightly edited; therefore there may be slight discrepancies with audio clips.

So a lot of what MIUSA exchange does is to give people the glimpse of what is possible. Again, a lot of times I get glimpses of what's possible in their countries. I don't want to make it sound like it's a one-way street. But once you have that glimpse, then disabled people and their allies in that country can figure out what they want and how they can get there. But a lot of times people are blown away by—you know, severely disabled kids in regular schools, and you have a bus system and everything is accessible, and there are ramps, and people who are deaf have sign language interpreters, and people who are blind are on computers.

I mean, to me, and that's where a lot of power is, is giving people an idea of what's possible. A lot of things that have to do with low technology, too. Buses don't necessarily have to have hydraulic lifts to be accessible. There's low-tech accessibility, too. I think that once people see what's possible, then they get motivated and excited.

I know there was once a group of, I think from Russia, special education teachers who had been taught that disabled kids have to be in separate schools. That's what they taught. They were the heads of their whole country in that, and they came and saw some schools in Eugene where all the disabled kids obviously were included and integrated. I was at a debriefing session, and they were, like, our head tells us that disabled kids should be in special schools. That's what we've taught; that's what we're experts on. But I've just seen all these "severely disabled" kids in regular school, and my heart now tells me that what I've been doing for the last twenty years has been wrong.

Those are just a lot of insights that come from that. Anyway, there's so much to do. It's also interesting to see—I talked a lot, actually, in Mary Lou's class about culture, that a lot of times people will say, "Well, we don't do that in our culture." I gave a very firm answer to that, that I don't think there's any culture that you can say, "Well, in our culture disabled kids are treated differently or they're very passive" or "in our culture we don't stand up for our rights."

So many people are very quick to say, "We don't do that in our culture. It's different in our culture. You don't understand our culture." I think what we're talking about is not a cultural issue; it's a human rights issue. It's a dangerous term, I think, that people sometimes use as an excuse. And usually it's not disabled people who come up with "it's not our culture," though disabled people might say it—because that's what people have told us, that "we don't do that in our culture."

But my bottom line is if you go to any country in the world and you get a group of disabled people in a room and parents of disabled kids or adults in a room and you ask them, Do you want your kid to have the same education? Do you want them to be able to get on a bus? Do you want to be able to pee in a bathroom? Do you want, if you're deaf, to get sign language interpreters or whatever you want? If you're blind, do you want to have the ability to get materials that you can use? If you have a kid with a cognitive disability, do you want them to get some kind of education and have a future and figure out a work opportunity?

And that's what we're all talking about. Do you want to have the chance to go swimming and go snorkeling or get married or have children? Do you want a chance to have health care? Show me one country where disabled people and their parents, whatever, say No, we don't want those things, and I will take back my argument. But it doesn't happen.

And it's used as a veil, and people are so sensitive about it—and I think there is a lot about being sensitive about somebody's culture, but you've got to not confuse that with human rights issues. And I've been hit a lot with, "Oh, Susan, you're coming in here. You don't understand the culture." We'll you're damn right I don't understand your culture, your language, your history. I know absolutely nothing. I'm here to talk about human rights. I've never left a country where I've met with disabled people and they said, "We really don't want any of those things."

End of transcript

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