‘In search of the same dreams’

Non-profit organization promotes disabled women activists for Women’s Day

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Anna C.K. Smith / The Torch
Jenny Chinchilla, guest speaker at the MIUSA Disabled Women’s Day Celebration, speaks to a crowd of people about some of the triumphs and tribulations of her life as a disabled woman growing up in El Salvador.

On International Women’s Day on Mar. 8, the disability-led organization Mobility International USA held an event at the Miner Building in downtown Eugene to celebrate disabled women activists worldwide.

According to the non-profit organization’s website, MIUSA is headquartered in Eugene but offers programs and internships worldwide “[t]o empower people with disabilities to achieve their human rights through international exchange and international development.”

Past the clutter of guests and hosts sipping on drinks, nibbling on snacks and chatting near the entrance was a hallway where ceiling lights shone on easels that held portrait photographs of women from various countries, including Sri Lanka, Cameroon, Nigeria and Mexico.

The exhibit, which has travelled throughout the U.S. and worldwide, featured ten of the 30 photographs of disabled women activists in MIUSA’s 2013 book, “Brilliant and Resillient: Celebrating the Power of Disabled Women Activists.” The women in the book are all alumni of MIUSA’s major training program, the Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD). The portraits featured in the exhibit on Thursday were paired with poster boards that told the stories of the WILD alumni through their own quotes.

“I desperately wanted to create a world where nondisabled people acknowledge that people with disabilities go in search of the same dreams,” the quote next to the portrait of Olga Montütar Contreras, a Mexican woman who contracted polio as an infant and graduated from a university years later with an engineering degree, said.

Dulamsren Jigjid is a Mongolian woman who lost her hearing in elementary school, where she was “considered disruptive and someone who should be sent home,” her quote said. After being homeschooled throughout secondary school, she attended a university and became the leader of her country’s deaf community.

Ruth Acheinegeh, a guest at the event who was also featured on one of the ten exhibit portraits, was born in Cameroon and faced rejection and shame for her physical mobility disability. She strives to promote the necessity of including women with disabilities in more occupations back home.

“Women with disabilities are the poorest of the poor,” she said. “I hope more women with disabilities will be more involved in education in West Africa.”

The guest speaker during the event on Thursday was Jenny Chinchilla, a disability rights activist from El Salvador, WILD alumnus and recipient of MIUSA’s Mike and Lisa Sygall Scholarship, which provided her with an internship at MIUSA as well as an English course at the University of Oregon’s American English Institute.

“This is a time to remember women of the past and present who make today possible,” Chinchilla said, with an ASL translator interpreting her speech.

The world is still far from providing equal rights to women with disabilities, the activist said, but she has hope in investing in communities. She added that MIUSA aims to achieve these goals for all people, including men and children.

The event resonated with various guests that night, including those who had never attended a MIUSA event before.

“My best friend, Anomoli, is disabled and I recently found out I have epilepsy,” Twiga May-Whittier, who attended her first MIUSA event that night, said. “So I am just discovering my own identity as a disabled woman and wanted to celebrate Women’s Day with other disabled women.”

MIUSA hopes to host a WILD program this year and will be carrying out more events in Eugene to promote the program. Upcoming events will be posted to the organization’s website and Facebook page.