Towards a More Inclusive World: How My Fulbright Experience Enables Me to Advocate for People with Disabilities

4 min readJun 26, 2018

When I first arrived in the United States in 2002 on a Fulbright scholarship to study intercultural communication at California State University, Sacramento one of the first and most striking discoveries for me was the Americans with Disabilities Act, which had been enacted ten years earlier. Disabled myself, having sustained a spinal cord injury at the age of three in my home country of Syria, one of my objectives for my Fulbright experience was to discover more about people with disabilities in the United States and the laws and regulations of the country. Indeed, this act was an eye-opener for me. It has enabled me to put the wheels of my chair, rather than my feet, on the road towards a more fulfilling life experience for me and people with disabilities anywhere in the world.

During the two years I spent in California and through my visits to other states, I saw first-hand the importance of having laws, regulations, and procedures that empower people with disabilities and allow them to realize their full potential. During my Fulbright journey in the United States, I made sure to meet and engage with other people with disabilities, whether through self-help groups, NGOs, or individual encounters, to see what I could learn and what experience I could gain to ensure the world we live in becomes friendlier for all of us, including those with different abilities.

With Fulbright colleagues and our teachers at Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), Monterey, California during our orientation program in July/August 2000.

Disability Facts and Figures

The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 5 persons in the world has some form of disability, making that more than a billion people. The American Community Survey estimates the overall percentage of people with disabilities in the United States’ population in 2016 was 12.8%. In 2016, of the United States population with disabilities, over half (51.0%) were people between the ages of 18–64, while 41.4% were 65 and older. An International Labor Organization study concluded that economic losses related to disability worldwide are large and measurable, ranging between 3 and 7 percent of GDP. Clearly, the price of exclusion is very high.

With Fulbright colleagues singing karaoke in Monterey, California during our orientation program in August 2000.

My Syria Experience

Upon returning to Syria after my Fulbright in 2002, I joined the Aga Khan Development Network, the largest private development agency in the world, as a Communications Officer. This experience allowed me to gain a better world view of wider development issues and how interconnected these problems are. In 2005, I started my own freelance translation/interpretation business, working mostly with United Nations, European Union, and many other development agencies and NGOs. Despite my work, however, I continued to keep abreast on disability and other social activism issues.

In 2008, I had the chance to be nominated to the newly re-formed National Council of Disability Affairs in Syria to represent people with physical disabilities. In late 2010, I was appointed Secretary General of this council. Reporting to the Minister of Social Affairs and Labor and to a council which included a half-dozen deputy ministers, a number of persons with disabilities, disability experts, and representatives of disability-related NGOs, I helped coordinate and implement the countrywide National Plan for Disability. I remained in my position until I left for Dubai, UAE, in late 2012 after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War.

With Fulbright colleagues and our teachers at Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), Monterey, California during our orientation program in July/August 2000.

Dubai: The Journey Continues

Once in Dubai, I revived my old dream of working in media. In early 2013, I joined CNBC Arabia TV, the premier business channel in the Middle East and North Africa as an interpreter/translator and TV reports writer. Here, I was able to put to use the knowledge and experience I gained during my Fulbright years to my professional work. I have done some reports and documentaries, as well as co-hosted several episodes of CNBC Arabia shows discussing disability issues and rights, especially in a context related to employment and business. I focused on how to include people with disability in the workplace and how to promote their contribution to the economy at large.

At the interpretation booth in CNBC Arabia studios in Media City, Dubai, UAE in 2018

Moreover, just like the United States, Dubai is a truly diverse city that embraces pluralism as a real value.. My advocacy and lobbying efforts that I gained and reinforced in the United States and Syria also continue in Dubai. I got involved in a number of workshops and meetings that are part of an initiative called “My Community… A City for Everyone,” an ambitious plan by this Gulf emirate to become a friendlier place for everybody, including persons with disabilities, by 2020.

Moderating a session on Expats, Migrants and Refugees at the 10th Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature

I truly believe that the world is a global village. Experience and knowledge gained in one part of the world and efforts exerted in another part are necessarily interrelated and mutually supportive. I dream of a more inclusive world for us all and I work to my utmost to make such a dream come true.

Hazem graduated in 2004 from Middlebury Institute for International Studies. He is originally from Syria but currently lives in the UAE.