Susan Sygall (KNFP 7), Director, Mobility International USA, Eugene, Oregon.
This article was originally published in the January 2005 issue of the KFLA Newsletter.
Susan Sygall’s adventurous spirit has taken her to destinations around the globe, backpacking through Europe and Israel, hitchhiking through New Zealand, riding local buses through Mexico, Guatemala, Indonesia, and Thailand.
Susan has spent all of her adult life in a wheelchair. She makes it a habit to go beyond the boundaries the world has imposed. She says, many of the tenets of her Kellogg Fellowship, ”doing something that is innovative and that is making a difference”, serve as a measure of how well she is achieving her goals. Indeed, Susan has spent her career making a difference by creating programs to address unmet access and civil rights issues for people with disabilities.
While studying on a Rotary International scholarship at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, she realized that international exchange is a life-changing event. ”It occurred to me,” she recalls, ”that people with disabilities were not part of these programs.” Susan knew she wanted to do something to ensure more people with disabilities were included in these programs.
At the University of Oregon, while completing her master’s degree in therapeutic recreation, she co-founded Mobility International USA (MIUSA). The organization first hosted an international work camp to build an accessible trail system and camp outside Eugene, Oregon. The criterion was that a majority of participants had to be people with disabilities. Today, 24 years later, MIUSA has worked with 80 countries and provided exchange programs for more than 2,000 people with disabilities. Not only does it serve as a clearinghouse to link people with disabilities to exchange programs, MIUSA hosts its own bilateral exchange programs with countries such as Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, England, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
MIUSA also works with international development agencies, such as Mercy Corps and American Friends Service Committee, to include people with disabilities in their relief efforts. ”We also want to make sure that, when these agencies are rebuilding places like Afghanistan and Iraq, that the infrastructure is accessible,” says Susan.
Intrinsic to Susan’s work is a focus on the issues of women with disabilities. To this end, MIUSA spearheaded such gatherings as the 1995 International Symposium on Women with Disabilities in Beijing, the 1997 Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD), and the 1998 International Symposium on Microcredit for Women with Disabilities.
"Because of these programs, women have been able to go to the next step in their leadership,” says Susan. ”They gain solidarity through meeting with other disabled women. One woman in our WILD Institute became president of a large international disability organization; another was elected to her city council.”
Susan has received numerous awards in recognition of her commitment to the rights of people with disabilities, including the President’s Award from Bill Clinton in 1995, and a MacArthur Fellowship in 2000.
Reflects Susan, ”Personally, I’ve been unbelievably fortunate. Amazing things have happened in my life that have allowed me to do work that I’m passionate about and that has made an impact.”