Susan Sygall

Ashoka Fellow
Eugene, Oregon, United States
Fellow Since 2013


This profile was prepared when Susan Sygall was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.
The New Idea
Over the last thirty years, Susan has transformed the field of international exchange and international development to ensure the full participation of people with disabilities as leaders of change. She knew that people with disabilities around the world needed to unite, move away from siloes (i.e. blind, deaf, physical), and form a cross-disability movement. Susan also realized few people with disabilities were being included in international development programs. In addition, she was dismayed to see that, although women and girls with disabilities are among the most vulnerable, very little was being done to target their needs and unlock their leadership potential.

In 1981 Susan resolved to tackle each of these issues and transform disability inclusion within international development. She strived to change the perspectives and practices of development organizations from a medical and charity-based framework to rights-based approach. Thanks to her efforts through InterAction, a consortium of 190 US-based international development organizations working on a variety of issues (e.g. disaster relief, health, and others) now adhere to specific standards on the inclusion of people with disabilities. Likewise, Susan has influenced national public policy to increase the number of people with disabilities in international educational exchange, through Mobility International USA’s US Department of State-funded National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange.

Though Susan is already recognized by many of her peers as having made a scratch on history, she continues to pursue pathbreaking work. Today, she is pushing the disability movement to accelerate the “rights paradigm” toward what she calls “infiltration.” Susan observes that recent efforts to further promote inclusive development have relied on convincing the development community to change. Her approach moves from a focus on advocating for “inclusion” to more direct “infiltration.” It is Susan’s conviction that people with disabilities must educate themselves on international development policies and practice, and then, literally, bring disabled people directly to existing programs. She is also mobilizing the disability community to provide information, expertise, and guidance to the development community, to ensure that people with disabilities will be successful as participants in their programs; while also applying pressure on funders to strengthen their policies on disability inclusion.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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