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Disability Rights Advocate Susan Sygall Promotes International Exchange and Rights-Focused Development at UW

Susan Sygall speaks with students in Prof. Stephen Meyers' “Disability in Global and Comparative Perspectives" course. The UW Center for Human Rights' Speaker Honoraria Fund supports classroom speakers with experience in front-line human rights advocacy.
Susan Sygall speaks with students in Prof. Stephen Meyers' “Disability in Global and Comparative Perspectives" course. The UW Center for Human Rights' Speaker Honoraria Fund supports classroom speakers with experience in front-line human rights advocacy.

March 20, 2017

Like many students who have the opportunity to travel abroad, Susan Sygall’s year as an exchange student at the University of Queensland in Australia during 1975 was one of the defining experiences of her life. She went camping in the Outback, hitch-hiked across New Zealand, and bussed through Southeast Asia. As a wheelchair-rider and advocate for the rights of students with disabilities at Berkeley, her alma mater, Susan noticed few other students with disabilities on her trip. She returned home determined to make experiences like hers more accessible to all. “International exchange is the most important experience a student can have at University,” says Sygall, “Even more so for students with a disability.”

In 1981, Susan Sygall co-founded Mobility International USA to promote access to international travel and exchange for people with disabilities. Today MIUSA administers the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, a State Department-sponsored program which offers free advising, training and resources to individuals and institutions in order to make international programs more accessible and inclusive.

During Winter Quarter 2017, Susan Sygall led a workshop on “Disability Inclusive Study Abroad” at the University of Washington, hosted by the UW D Center and co-sponsored by the UW Center for Human Rights. The event brought together students, faculty and study abroad coordinators from across campus, representing programs including business, urban design, forestry, and international studies.

Sygall says that study abroad programs can and should be accessible to everyone. “Don’t let preconceived notions of what’s possible stop you. Start with ‘Yes!’ Then the question becomes ‘How?’” She recommends applying principles of Universal Design when planning programs, including asking all participants about their needs, budgeting for inclusion, and making topics related to disability part of the exchange whether students with disabilities are participating or not. Jon McGough, Associate Director of UW Disability Resources for Students, agrees. “Barriers aren’t created by students, but by physical spaces and pedagogical decisions.” If UW credit is involved, his office will coordinate accessibility.

During the workshop at the D Center, UW students Hannah Langlie and Jessie Zhang shared their experiences as participants in the English Department’s popular London program during 2014. Already an experienced international traveller, Langlie saw her participation in the program as a way to expand access for other students with disabilities by showing what is possible. It took some extra planning: organizing a GoFundMe campaign to pay for a friend to travel with her as an assistant; and researching before the trip to identify local resources, like where to repair her wheelchair when she got a flat tire. A journalism student, Langlie documented her experiences on her blog and in articles for the Seattle Globalist. “What a host country may lack in accessibility, they make up for in attitude,” Langlie says.

Jessie Zhang’s trip to London was her first experience traveling solo. Zhang identifies as deaf/hard of hearing, so she used a combination of tools to enhance her participation in the program, including an FM wireless amplifier, and CART (Communication Access Real Time) captioning system. For the program’s course in London’s Contemporary Theater, Zhang used captioning and read play scripts on her phone in real time. The trip gave Zhang the travel bug: “My experience in London encouraged me to study abroad again, this time in South Korea! I wanted to see how my studies in Informatics, specifically UX design, applied to other countries, and I wanted to develop my global perspective on technology and design.”

In addition to promoting international exchange for people with disabilities in the U.S., Mobility International USA also works to expand disability rights globally, with a focus on the rights of women and girls with disabilities. The Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability, or WILD, has brought more than 200 participants from 80+ countries to Eugene, Oregon for a three week program including skill-sharing and trainings for rights advocacy, meetings with global development organizations, and team-building activities like river rafting.

Susan Sygall also joined students for a discussion in Prof. Stephen Meyers’ “Disability in Global and Comparative Perspectives” course, which is cross-listed in International Studies; Law, Societies & Justice; and Disability Studies. Sygall explained why a rights-focused approach development is especially essential for the more than 500 million women with disabilities around the globe, who experience disproportionate rates of violence and scarce access to healthcare. WILD takes on these and other challenges through core values of cross-disability solidarity, pride, and human rights. “We are moving from a model of inclusion to one of infiltration,” says Sygall, as women with disabilities move into positions of leadership in their communities and organizations.

Susan Sygall’s visit to the University of Washington was supported by the UW Center for Human Rights’ Speaker Honoraria Fund, which funds classroom speakers with a front-line perspective on human rights efforts. In addition to her work with Mobility International USA, Susan Sygall is a long-time disability rights activist. She participated in the historic occupation of a federal building in San Francisco in 1977, which led to the implementation of the first federal legislation for people with disabilities. She has received many awards and recognitions: in 2013 she was named an Ashoka Senior Fellow; she received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2000; and received the Presidents Award from President Bill Clinton in 1995.