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The Secret Sauce: Changing Perceptions to Empower Persons With and Without Disabilities

Posted on Wednesday, February 26th, 2020 at 3:17 pm.

By Robert Rose, Host parent for secondary school students

Robert Rose (top Right) visiting Nepal (Photo Credit: Armen Stein)

After volunteering as a photographer for a non-profit organization based out of Sausalito, CA back in 1997, I started partnering Rotary Clubs in my area with Rotary Clubs in Nepal to undertake projects helping children with disabilities. About 13 years ago my wife Gina and I started our own small non-profit – TRIFC, to provide educational, nutritional, medical, and empowerment help to children with disabilities in Nepal.

My involvement with Rotary International, a community service organization, began in 1974 when at the age of sixteen I traveled to Calcutta, India, as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. I spent eight months living with Indian families, attending school, and traveling around the country. To this day the experience informs my global perspectives and ideas about human impact.

Gina Rose and Seema Tamang enjoying winter activities in Bellevue, Washington

Through the Exchange Visitor Program, my wife Gina and I were fortunate to host the first Rotary Youth Exchange high school student out of Nepal – Ms. Seema Tamang – in 2016. Seema is a joyful student with blindness who stayed with us for eight months, experiencing the beauty and diversity of activities that the Seattle area has to offer and attending Sammamish High School in Bellevue. We love her as if she were our own daughter. As with my youth exchange experience to Calcutta, India, Seema’s own life as well as the lives of everyone she touched are forever changed. My experiences with Seema taught me the importance of hands-on, tactile learning opportunities as the primary way that students with blindness learn about the world around them. Only reading about concepts in books provides little understanding and lots of confusion. Through TRIFC we are putting these tactile educational concepts into actionable programs in Nepal to help students with blindness.  Including students with disabilities in international youth exchange programs facilitates perceptual change and is a pathway to world understanding and peace.

Sean McCormick, Principal of the Washington State School for the Blind (WSSB), reading to children in Nepal

Throughout all my years working with TRIFC and Rotary in Nepal, one super-simple concept has stood out for me above all others – It’s what I call the ‘secret sauce’. I first experienced this concept in Nepal. It has shaped all of my project work in Nepal and in the USA.  I remember it like it was yesterday:

It all started with an argument. The year was 2006. I was in Kathmandu attending a committee meeting of the Rotary Club of Kopundol. The Nepali Rotarians present were yelling at each other about the best course of action to support a local center for kids with disabilities. At first, I was taken aback and concerned about the loud and angry words being thrown back and forth. But then, I thought, “Wow, this is great!  This is fantastic!” This group of adults without disabilities, who before this project had little or no prior interactions among people with disabilities, had suddenly become extremely passionate about providing a better life for this group of kids. What had happened to make this dramatic perceptual change come about?

It is this: When you get people with and without disabilities interacting together, perceptions about disabilities are forever changed. People with disabilities are no longer defined by their disability, they are seen as a person first, a fellow human being with many of the same abilities, aspirations, and character traits as anyone else. That is what happened when the Rotarians from the Rotary Club of Kopundol became personally involved with that group of kids with disabilities. They no longer defined the kids as ‘disabled’. They were kids, like other kids, like their own children, and they passionately debated about what could be done to improve the living conditions and accessibility in the center.

Inspiration Playground in Bellevue, Washington

The concept of the ‘secret sauce’ continues to guide me and became the seed of an idea, which bloomed into the development of Inspiration Playground, an inclusive playground for children and adults with and without disabilities in the downtown park of my hometown – Bellevue, Washington.

I pitched to the leadership in my Rotary Club and to the City of Bellevue Parks Department the idea of bringing people with and without disabilities together in a natural environment to change perspectives and get kids of all abilities outside to play. My Rotary project co-chairs, Pat Naselow and Liz Swanson were instrumental in getting the playground built, bringing their time and professional talents to the project. The leadership team at the City of Bellevue were true partners in helping this ‘seed’ grow into the jewel of our downtown park. Representatives of groups with disabilities and parents of with kids with disabilities provided valuable insights and input into what was important to include in the new playground.  When people with disabilities have a seat at the table and are included in the design and planning process, the end result is a project that is truly inclusive and where everyone benefits. Hundreds of Rotary and community volunteers, including youth and adults with disabilities, were also integral to our success.

Whether it is through international exchange programs or community-based projects, when we regularly and intentionally create interactions between people with and without disabilities – and include persons with disabilities in the planning and design process – we change perceptions and empower everyone.

Categories: Program Spotlight

About Nicole Elkon

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchange

Nicole Elkon

Nicole Elkon joined the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchange in September 2021. Until June 2021, Ms. Elkon was the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Human Rights First, an independent advocacy organization focused on human rights and the rule of law. Prior to her position as COO, Ms. Elkon was a Senior Advisor at Results for America (RFA), a non-profit organization focused on advancing data-driven, evidence based public policy at all levels of government. She also served as Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary of ECA and was Director of the Office of Public Private Partnerships at ECA working to leverage strategic partnerships to enhance Administration foreign policy priorities.

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