“Embrace it. It’s a strength.”
Sara Minkara considers herself privileged. Although she lost her sight at the age of seven, she grew up in a supportive and loving family. She went to inclusive schools and universities where she pursued her academic and social goals.
But she would get a very different view of disability when she was away from her supportive routine, including on summer vacations in Lebanon where her parents are from.
There she would be ashamed and made to feel as if she was a charity case; worthy of pity, and a burden on society.
Two different worlds
“I think it was seeing two different worlds and realities as a blind person. I used to hate, really hate, the fact that I was blind,” she says. “And I used to think to myself if I was living that narrative my whole life, I wouldn’t have achieved one fraction of what I’ve achieved so far.”
She started to explore whether those harmful attitudes could be changed, and if they could, what would it mean for society, especially the one billion people in the world who live with some form of disability.
Sara formed Empowerment Through Integration, an organization that is committed to disrupting the disability narrative. They empower individual young people in countries such as Lebanon and advance authentic inclusion around the world.
“We haven’t yet come to a point in society where we say persons with disabilities are part of the get-go; are part of the original system. We need to include them from the beginning and think of their voices,” she says.
The stories we tell
For her, it’s a matter of storytelling, and the stories we tell about people with disabilities, as well as those they tell about themselves, must change if they are to achieve their potential.
“[I want to] get everyone within society to believe that the inclusion of disability is a value for all,” she says.
Sara recently led a UNDP-sponsored event at UN Headquarters in New York. It was lunch with a slight twist — all the participants were blindfolded as they ate. None was allowed to say what they did for a living when they spoke to their dining companions, as Sara guided them through a series of exercises designed to help them think differently about inclusion.
She says the blindfolds were not to reproduce the sensation of being blind but to remove the visual cues with which we often judge people.
“How can you achieve a space where everyone can bring their true self forward without being afraid of judgement, without being afraid of repercussions, how can you make sure that every single voice is included and how can we start changing our narrative surrounding assumptions and surrounding identities including disability?” she says.
Grass roots level
Inclusion is at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals and Sara is fully committed to getting people with disabilities to change their own stories, to see themselves as strong and having value. In 2009 she held her first inclusive summer camp in Lebanon, and 10 years later she continues her mission there. “It’s very much grass roots level, working with pretty much every single stakeholder within that society.”
She describes her work as “a movement” and her goal is to bring this narrative change to every single space and every single community.
‘It’s not going to be achieved in five or ten years because we’re really changing how society perceives a big portion of their population, you know, one billion individuals with disabilities. And I think it’s on both ends. It’s society changing this narrative, but it’s also individuals with disabilities. Getting them to say ‘your disability is not something to be ashamed of’. Embrace it. It’s a strength.”
Sara offers herself as an example of the hope of future change. She maintains her success is mostly due to the environment she grew up in.
“It’s not because I had more potential, it’s because I had the empowering support of the community that allowed me to tap into my own value and my own kind of potential,” she says.
Video and photo: UNDP/Andrew Hein