Empowerment Through Integration is changing the narrative surrounding the blind youth by building a more empowered and inclusive community.
by Aisiri Amin
Sara Minkara was seven-years-old when she lost her vision. And suddenly, there was a new label attached to her identity. Almost two decades later, Minara says, “Labels are beautiful but not when they stop seeing you for who you are.”
Born and raised in the US, Minkara’s place of origin is Lebanon, where she used to spend her summers with her parents. There she came across the pitying narrative, the drowning of her individuality in her myopic view of the society. Her identity was often reduced to her disability.
She grew up trying to make sense of two worlds, one that empowered her and one that saw her as a burden to the society. She knew she had to change the narrative, to make the inclusion of persons with a disability a reality. With that vision in mind, she started Empowerment Through Integration in 2011.
In the seven years since its birth, ETI has grown phenomenally. It doesn’t just tell you why inclusion is important, it shows you through their unique empowerment and integration programmes such as ‘Dining in the Dark’.
Sara Minkara talks to INKLINE about the need for inclusion of persons with disability, how ETI is empowering blind youth and teaching them self-reliance and much more.
INKLINE: In the seven years since ETI was founded, you have cemented your place as an advocate for disability rights and inclusion. How did it all start?
Sara Minkara: I never thought I would start an organisation to be honest. My initial career path was gonna be actually in Maths which was my undergraduate major and I was planning to do a PhD in that. But as you know I am blind and I grew up in the US but my parents are from Lebanon. I intimately witnessed two types of worlds while growing up.
“If you enter a room and you believe that you belong there and that you can contribute and you are proud of who are, of all of your identity, people will see that and respect that. It all starts with you.”
When I was in Lebanon during the summers that’s when I felt my blindness was a disability. I started feeling like I should be ashamed of who I was. I used to be ashamed of my blindness. If I lived that reality, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.
Unfortunately, because of that narrative, so many people are not able to tap into their full potential. So, I kind of started understanding and reflecting on that as I grew up. Later in my second year of college, I actually did a project in Lebanon. It was a summer project to bring sighted and blind children together to focus on the concept of inclusion and empowerment. That camp was so powerful. The kids, the parents and the community loved it.
That’s when I realised that this is my passion, this is what I want to do. Since then it has grown in so many different ways. Today, our programmes have six different programmes in Lebanon.
I: What was the one thing that worked for you?
S: Being young helped because you are more inclined to take risks, you don’t know what lies ahead, you aren’t aware of the rollercoaster ride that life is. So I think ignorance was actually a bliss at that time. I was surrounded by amazing friends and family who supported me.
Also, all my funding, in the beginning, came from college as I was in college and grad school. It was a good kind of cushion. Afterwards, I realised that if I had to become more professional, I needed to move away from that. I needed to bring more people who had the right skill set and were also passionate about the cause so that they were not just coming to work for me but also because they were passionate about the cause.
“Our disability is an asset, a strength, a beauty. It’s a beauty to our own minds and to the world.”
I: As a blind Muslim-American woman, you are raising your voice for at least four different communities. Do you feel we are moving towards a more inclusive society or a hostile environment?
S: I think it varies. After Trump won the elections, there has been a lot of hostility, there is a lot of Islamophobia in the atmosphere. But the beautiful part is that because of the increase in hostility, there has been a lot of people uniting and supporting each other. So many voices are marginalised because of race, gender, ethnicity, disability, religion. Those marginalised voices along with the others have come together to support each other. It has been a blessing in disguise.
Also, to be honest, it’s human nature and it will continue. It’s a constant struggle and existence in life. We all have assumptions and we all judge. It’s so important for all of us to self-reflect and recognise them and address them. We have to work on us to improve and empower ourselves.
I’m Muslim, blind, American and woman. I enter a room and all the heads turn to me. I have so many stigmas attached to me. I remember a professor at grad school told me: “Sara, if you enter a room and you are embodying people’s judgments, people are gonna feel that and it will become a vicious cycle. But if you enter a room and you believe that you belong there, that you can contribute and you are proud of who are, of all of your identity, people will see that and respect that. It all starts with you. With how you see yourself and how you present yourself.”
That’s a very powerful statement and that has stayed with me.
I: What are some of the challenges that you have faced in your journey?
S: I am young, I look young, so people don’t take me seriously. Moreover, I am a blind young woman. Many go: “Oh my god, you are amazing!”. They are focusing on my blindness in a way they shouldn’t. There is a lot of unnecessary sympathies that persons with disabilities have to face. It doesn’t allow people to see me for who I am, as a person. It doesn’t allow them to see the work we do. That has been a constant struggle.
I: Like you said, often persons with disabilities are seen as just that. How is ETI changing this myopic view?
S: We do one of these programmes called, Integrations in the Dark, where we blindfold people and they meet each other for the first time without being able to see the other person. When we see people for the first time what do we do? We size them up, we label them and to those labels, we attach the assumptions about who they are, what they are, and what their potential is.
It goes back to the fact that the cultural narrative needs to change. Yes, labels are beautiful. I am proud to be blind, to be a woman, to be a Muslim. I proud of every aspect of my identity but all I am asking is that you don’t make any assumption about me until you get to know me. So, that’s what needs to happen. Delay all of your assumptions but have one assumption that ‘I expect amazing things from you.’ If you push every single person like that, expect great things from them then the world would be a very different place.
I: What are some of the stigmas that people often have about persons with disabilities?
S: There are a lot of them. The concept that you are useless, that there is no point in going to school or get a job. You are a burden to society, you need help, basically the charity perspective. That’s harmful. Everyone looks at it through a technical lens or at best through a human rights lens. But it’s never come to a point where people realise that it’s valuable for all if we include everyone and this person has a potential like everyone else.
We have two different programmes. In our empowerment programme, in countries like Lebanon, the stigma has instilled a pitying narrative in blind kids. We need to work on eliminating that from the kids’ mind. We need to help them embrace their disability and make them understand that they have something great to contribute.
We also have programmes for parents because they are the children’s first enablers or disablers. The parents create the first community at home.
I: Often there is an unintended distance between people with disabilities and others. People are extra-cautious, there is sympathy disguised as over-zealous support. How do you think we can move past that?
S: It’s a two-way street. Curiosity is important. It’s better to be curious than make assumptions so ask questions. But, also treat the person with disability like anyone else and feel comfortable. At the same time, persons with disabilities should be open to answering questions. I feel persons with disabilities are often frustrated because they face the stigma on a day to day basis so these questions might not come across well.
In the end, we all have our own obstacles, challenges, backgrounds, so we all need to take a step back and see each other as humans.
I: If there is one thing you could tell the world, what would it be?
S: Our disability is an asset, a strength, a beauty. It’s a beauty to our own minds and to the world. The world needs to recognise that and try to bring it into the system, into the society.
Also, there is a need to see the word ‘disability’ in a positive way. It’s important to remove the stigma and negative connotation attached to it.
I: If you could give any advice to the persons with disabilities across the world struggling with inclusion, what would that be?
S: I would say, don’t ever see yourself the way the society sees you. I think it’s so important to eliminate all negativity. Don’t submit yourself to society’s expectations. Take a step back reflect internally, start seeing the beauty of your identity and start exploring your potential.
“In the end, we all have our own obstacles, challenges, backgrounds, so we all need to take a step back and see each other as humans.”
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).