Shatha Abusrour, a veteran advocate of the rights of persons with disabilities in the West Bank and Gaza, is currently a student at Grand Valley State University, where she is earning a Master’s degree as part of USAID’s Master’s Scholarship Program for West Bank and Gaza. We spoke with her recently about her experiences in the United States and how she plans to apply her education upon returning home to the West Bank and Gaza. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me about the challenges that people with disabilities face in the West Bank and Gaza? Are there challenges there that are unique?
One challenge has to be the unique political situation in Palestine. Palestinians that have been injured by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) increase the number of persons with disability in the area. Also, during the attacks themselves, persons with disabilities are exposed to double dangers because, for example, someone who hears, sees, or walks can more easily run from a bomb. Someone who hears, sees, and walks has a bigger chance to be safe than someone who doesn’t.
Then there are prisoners with disabilities in the Israeli prisons who do not have access to medical needs and requirements and certain devices.
Also, a lot has to do with the Palestinian laws for persons with disabilities, the fact that laws are not really enforced. So in many ways these laws are just, as they say, ink and paper.
“To work on disabilities is to promote the issue of diversity.”
What are some of the projects that you worked on in the Palestinian territories before coming to the U.S.?
In general, I was on advocacy. There are several advocacy campaigns we worked on. One of them had to do with labor in the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and the public sector. My colleagues and I wrote recommendations on how labor law can be more inclusive. We also worked through meetings, workshops among public and private administrators, and the chamber of commerce. Also, there were advocacy campaigns on health issues, insurance, and medication. These were the three areas of focus.
I also facilitated self and group empowerment among persons with disabilities through trainings and coaching in different projects and in collaboration with several non-governmental organizations.
I was one of the team members who designed the national disability strategic framework in Palestine, which represented the disability sector among public and non-governmental organizations and persons with disabilities themselves. Also, it was adopted by the higher council of persons with disabilities.
Through projects at the Center for Development Studies at Birzeit University and the YMCA, I worked on several research papers on disability-related issues.
Finally, during my time at the YMCA as an advocacy coordinator, I worked with other colleagues on designing manuals related to disability etiquette and disability and media. I had a chance to represent persons with disabilities at several national committees and one of the regional initiatives.
Currently, you’re studying in the United States, working towards a Master’s degree. How do you plan to use the education you’re getting now once you finish your degree?
They asked us this question in the application for the scholarship, one and a half years ago. It is different thinking about it now. I got introduced to different concepts, and I also have a chance now to look at what I was doing from a distance, to evaluate how I was doing things and how I can be better.
Advocacy is my passion. This is what I see myself doing. I have had a chance to learn more about advocacy, and I will also have a chance to learn more about it in the coming fall semester. What I am learning here more is the strategic managerial side of my work. I never bothered with that before.
When you first arrived in Michigan, did you have any sort of culture shock? Was it difficult to make that transition?
No. I had sadness for sure, but I didn’t feel like I was shocked by the differences. To work on disabilities is to promote the issue of diversity. People are different and acceptance is important for people to just work it out in this life.
What has your experience been of World Learning, which is helping to administer the program?
I really appreciate the relationship and the way they understand things, the way they respond to me.
When I first came, I started learning about the services the university offers for students with disabilities. I expected to find services in the library, because access to information is one of the biggest challenges for someone who is blind — most information is just posted in ways that are not accessible. But when I went to the library all that they had there was just a computer with JAWS (a screen reader), and this is not enough. My problem was most of their e-books are in a format that JAWS doesn’t read it.
So this was one of the things I talked to World Learning about, and they were very responsive and provided services. There was this openness.
“This lack of awareness [of the challenges that persons with disabilities face] comes from many things, and one of them is isolation.”
Can you describe the goal that you’re ultimately working towards? What would it look like and how can others help?
How realistic can I be? I would like to see different approaches, especially in development, which really fit with different contexts. Here I will be selfish and specify Palestine, because most of the interventions there are not moving people, and organizations are not running themselves independently.
I would like to experience fewer categorizations among people and unify people instead of just dividing them in numbers. This categorization is just not helpful. Classifying if someone is, I don’t know, shorter or black and white and with disabilities and without disabilities. And this are just some categorizations, but there are many others that are just separating people instead of bringing them together.
I would like to see justice, and it has many forms.
People who are not living with disabilities are sometimes not aware of some of the challenges that persons with disabilities face day-to-day. Is there anything that you would recommend that they be more aware of?
I would like to say that I don’t blame anyone who is not aware. This lack of awareness comes from many things, and one of them is isolation. People without disabilities don’t have enough chances to see and interact with persons with disabilities. There is this isolation in terms of education and institutions, even in employment here in the USA. People here talk about “good employment models” where most of the employees are blind. This is not inclusion and really limits the chances for people to be together, which widens the fragmentation among people with and people without disabilities. As long as programs are designed this way, I can’t see a chance for people with and without disabilities to know each other and interact with each other in a normal setting.
I guess it is very important for others to believe that every human being, whatever differences they have, has the same rights I do and the same basic needs I do, and the differences are just about how I will access this right, what I need to access this right, and how you will access this right. Having a disability or not does not mean that someone has more rights than the other. And if we come to understand that all of us have the same rights and the same needs, then there should be a change.
This article does not represent the views of the United States Government (USG) or the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).