“I witnessed a student who was really shy, and I noticed he was putting up a wall between the two of us,” says Faten. “It was like, ‘I don’t want to learn because I don’t know how.’ The first day he wouldn’t even talk, but day by day, until now, we’ve noticed that he’s started to talk to us. And I think in the next few weeks he will become more engaged with our activities and he will open up more.”
These stories are common during our programs, and they are what we expect. Everyone is nervous trying something new for the first time, but with encouragement, and confidence on the part of ETI’s volunteers and staff, our young participants gradually realize that they can try new things—and that they can succeed at them.
“Providing these educational experiences for kids to open up is the key to changing society’s view on disability,” says ETI Founder and CEO Sara Minkara. “Everyone is supportive and everyone believes in this kid—that’s what we’re trying to reinforce. When kids open up and become comfortable with who they are, they are able to explore their potential, and discover that they have so much more to offer to the world.”
How Do We “Deal” with People with Disabilities? Well, We Don’t—We Integrate Them
Of course parents and other community members who don’t have much experience interacting with people with disabilities would wonder how to “deal” with them. However, one of the narratives we are trying to change is approaching the subject of people with disabilities.
“When we say, ‘this group of people,’ and designate a group separately from everyone else, we continue to stigmatize, and to isolate people into groups,” says Sara.
By integrating the youth with visual impairment with sighted youth, and by offering the Parent Workshops, we also acknowledge a truth about changing the norm: that it takes everyone—including program participants, parents, family members, and volunteers—to make this happen.
As mentioned above, ETI holds monthly Parent Workshops, which are also meant to transform the mindset of parents in Lebanon about the potential of people with disabilities to contribute to society as a whole.
Parent Workshops seek to create a safe space for dialogue among parents of children with visual impairment and to promote discussions about the social and cultural challenges associated with being blind or having a blind family member. Volunteers are trained to facilitate dialogue among parents that focuses on the identification of possible misconceptions about blindness, to co-construct empowerment and integration strategies with parents to better support families and children with visual impairment during and after the Life Skill Program and Camp Rafiqi, and to increase access and exposure to empowerment and integration resources for parents and their families.
Bringing the message of empowerment beyond the Life Skill Program and Camp Rafiqi allows the it to grow beyond the youth participants in ETI’s programs. A child learning life skills for the first time cannot continue to develop his or her skills without the support of his or her family members, and this goal of continuous growth starts with the parents. In addition, parents of children without visual impairment partake in the Parent Workshop to bring the message of inclusion to their communities as well.
Transformation of Perspective from the Volunteers
“I think all of us have some deep wish to empower people in situations where they have not been as lucky as us,” says Tim Mauro, ETI’s Information Technology Manager who is currently volunteering with the Life Skill Program in Beirut. “Children born with visual impairment can face a difficult life without integration. This group in particular calls to me. The people in this group are exceptional, extremely dedicated, smart and kind-hearted. This has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life.”