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Gender and Social Inclusion

Meet Walei Sabry, Program Intern with the Disabilities Program


Walei Sabry is an intern with the Disabilities Program. He has a masters in disability studies and specializes in disability awareness, physical and social accessibility, and assistive technology. As a member of the blind and Arab American communities, Walei hopes to take the knowledge he gains from his education, the disability community, WRC and other NGOs to Egypt and join the efforts of the disability movement there. Also, Walei is usually carrying a deck of Braille playing cards if you’re up for a challenge!

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born in Egypt and immigrated to New York when I was nine with my family. I have been progressively going blind since I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at the age of four. I was able to see colors, shapes, faces and read regular size print until I was 19. For the past nine years, I’ve been adjusting to living as a blind person.

How did you get started in Disability Studies?

When I was in CUNY [City University, New York] Baruch I majored in psychology. It was during that time that I started to like the research aspect of psychology. At the same time, I was dealing with a lot of personal issues related to blindness and I thought, “There should be a field for conducting research on the topic of disability.” After I graduated, I found out that there was such a field and there was a Master’s program for it. I enrolled in the program and my life has drastically changed since.

What made you interested in working with the Women’s Refugee Commission?

I found a posting for a disability [program] intern online. It was very similar to what I wanted to do. The unique thing about it is that it focused on persons with disabilities on a global scale. I was mainly experienced in disability matters on the local level. I thought it would broaden my understanding of disability outside of the United States and perhaps reshape my understanding of disability in general.

What are common misconceptions about people with disabilities?

I am constantly treated differently because of how others perceive me. When I go to the airport, I get offered a wheelchair. When I go to a restaurant with a friend, I am not addressed directly. People think of disability as a tragedy, and constantly express feelings of sorrow and sympathy. I could be walking along having a great day, and someone feels the need to tell me how sorry they are for me. Our abilities are continually underestimated. Also, being disabled means you don’t get to have any personal space when dealing with others in public settings. People often physically approach me without my consent. More generally, there are a whole host of misconceptions, like people with disabilities are not fit to be parents. Women in wheelchairs cannot give birth. Wheelchair users and persons with intellectual disabilities are not sexual beings.

What have you learned about gender and women’s rights since working here?

I’ve learned about women in developing countries and their struggles. Issues such as taking care of their children in areas of conflict, risking their lives to get food, experiencing sexual assaults, being denied sexual rights.

I’ve also realized how the oppression of women is very similar to that of people with disabilities. Simone De Beauvoir once wrote that the problem of women was “Always the problem of men.” I think the same could be said for disability. The problem of the disabled has always been the problem of the able bodied.

What are some of the biggest problems facing refugees with disabilities?

Safety for women. People with disabilities are generally neglected and even more so in a refugee setting. This leaves women more vulnerable to sexual assaults. Their sexual rights are denied and they are not treated like complete human beings in the medical settings. They also suffer from a lack of educational opportunities because of inaccessibility (physical access and access to information), as well as a lack of employment opportunities. Because humanitarian programs are often not designed to be inclusive, there is a failure to be integrated into their communities, which results in isolation.

What do you like to do for fun?

Play cards, guitar, record music, Meet-ups, cultural events in NYC, such as the Moth Radio Hour, organize events for the disability community.

What is it like being a man working at a primarily female organization focused on women’s rights?

It’s given me a chance to realize that I’ve had some misunderstandings about women and I’m now more comfortable talking to women about subjects such as sex without feeling oppressive.

What have you learned about the humanitarian world since starting at the WRC?

So much about the UN and how it operates. I’ve also become familiar with the Millennium Development Goals, been introduced to many different international organizations for people with disabilities and learned about the role of humatarian actors in changing conditions for refugees and developing countries.

What are your future professional goals?

Joining disability advocates in Arab countries. Improving electronic accessibility (web accessibility, computers smart phones, etc.).

What is the biggest thing you have learned while working here at the WRC?

Change is a slow and daunting process, but it is achievable.


Gender and Social Inclusion