CEO, Mobility International USA
In this video
CEO of Mobility International USA Susan Sygall describes her path to helping disabled women and changing the definition of 'disabled.'
SUSAN SYGALL Screen Reader Transcript
I hate when people say, you know, I don't think of you as disabled. Why would you not think of me as disabled? Disability doesn't necessarily have any negative connotations.
Susan Sygall, CEO & Cofounder of Mobility International, USA
My mom, she was completely confident that women and girls should do everything. So I definitely come from a family that encouraged me. And I think that definitely influenced me a lot. I wanted to go to school in Colorado. I'm sure the fact that they had beautiful mountains and I was a skier had something to do with it.
I did not know any people with disabilities, but I was very interested in working with people with disabilities. While I was actually studying to work with people with disabilities, I was studying recreational therapy, then I, myself, happened to be in a car accident. And after that, it was sort of interesting going from someone who was in the class talking about people with disabilities to someone who was a person with a disability.
One of my mother's things that she always said was treasure each day. And I think something bad happens, you just regroup and make something really positive of what happens to your life.
I think the biggest thing for me was that transformation of how do I find who I am now and retain that positive sense of self? What am I? I'm a paraplegic? Could you spell that? I had never even heard of a paraplegic because at that time, there were no movies about paraplegics, there were no role models.
So I actually didn't, maybe like some people think, and oh, my god. It was more like, how come I can't get down all those steps in the subway? How come there isn't an elevator? And when people wouldn't give me a job because I was in a wheelchair, I was like, are you kidding? Now, looking back on it, the disability was not a tragedy. It's the life of people with disabilities and not having opportunities that's really the tragedy.
Sygall began her lifelong work as an activist for disability rights while attending graduate school at UC Berkeley.
At Berkeley, I started this recreation program because if disabled people want to go swimming, why are they going to a special therapeutic swimming place? They should just go to the regular pool. And there should be a lift on the pool. And if people want to go horseback riding, let's go to the regular stable and build a ramp. And get a horse and train it, maybe to have voice commands. And we build a saddle for quadriplegics.
I spoke at a conference and someone said, Susan, don't you think that's really dangerous to put someone on a horse who's disabled? And someone who is disabled made the joke, well, everyone has the right to break their neck twice.
In 1977, Sygall participated in an historic demonstration in San Francisco that led to the first disability civil rights law to be enacted in the U.S.
It was the beginning of the whole independent living and disability movement. People were challenging preconceived notions of what it meant to be disabled and starting to look at disability from a rights perspective. It was the first time that people with disabilities came together to work on legislation. And 100 of us participated in a takeover of the Health, Education, and Welfare building, many of whom stayed in that building for 28 days. It was the longest sit-in of a federal building in US history. And from that sit-in, they passed the Legislation 504, which was the predecessor to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
While at Berkeley, Sygall was chosen for a Rotary Scholarship to study in Australia.
This ad in the student paper, and it says, be an ambassador abroad. All expenses paid. And I thought oh, my god, that sounds amazing. After my year in Australia, I hitchhiked through New Zealand for six weeks. And we took a local buses through Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. There were no tourists, nobody spoke English. Obviously the buses were not accessible, so I was crawling up the bus and crawling down. It was very unusual for people to see someone in a wheelchair traveling. And kids would come over and touch my legs and things.
I saw a young guy begging on the floor in Thailand who probably had cerebral palsy. I could feel there was like this connection with him. It was like we're all part of a family of people with disabilities. And people with disabilities were not having the chance to share information and to share strategies. So when I came back after that year, I co-founded Mobility International USA. We started off with a donation of $500 and sort of went from there. And then started getting more grants and expanding our programs.
Today Mobility International USA is recognized as a leader for empowering people with disabilities worldwide through international exchange and development.
We have a Women's Institute on Leadership and Disability called the Wild Program. We're trying to build confidence for disabled women, so we're doing things like challenge courses, river rafting. The motto that we use for that program is Loud, Proud, and Passionate, which is really getting women with disabilities to be proud of themselves and to get their rights as women.
We put those three words to music, and then the women wrote the choruses. We just did it spontaneously. They sang it in English, Arabic, and Spanish. You can just see these women from all these different countries, some maybe for the first time, really believing, yeah, I'm a leader. I have rights. I'm going to make things happen. And I'm proud of who I am. That's exactly what we were trying to accomplish.
Susan Sygall’s work has transformed international exchange and global development for people with disabilities. Sygall became a wheelchair rider after a car accident at age 18, while she was studying recreational therapy in college. When she studied abroad in Australia, Sygall noticed she was unusual: there were very few disabled people on her trip. She wanted to activate people around the world to advocate for themselves and get access to all activities and exchange programs. In 1981 she started Mobility International USA, a non-profit organization working to advance the rights of people with disabilities globally. Mobility International also focuses on empowering women through the Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability. Before Mobility International, Sygall co-founded the Berkeley Outreach Recreation Program at the University of California, Berkeley, focused on improving access to recreation and sports for people with disabilities.
In 1995, Sygall influenced the U.S. Congress to establish funds that created the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The Clearinghouse aims to increase the participation of people with disabilities in all types of travel.
Sygall has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the Kellogg National Fellowship, and the Ashoka Fellowship for her dedicated advocacy for disability rights. In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded her the President’s Award for her leadership in international exchange programs and global empowerment for people with disabilities.
More From Susan
Sygall discusses how important her friends and colleagues have been to her achievements and advises us to surround ourselves with people who believe in us.
Screen Reader Q&A #1
Susan Sygall - "People Who Believe in Your Dreams"
I am very, very aware that my accomplishments are based on being surrounded by people who've worked with me all these years to make all these things happen-- mostly women who are on my staff who have been my friends and my colleagues-- many of them who you'll never know their names, and they're not in the limelight. My advice would be to surround yourself with people who believe in your dreams and stay positive.
Protesting in Beijing
Susan Sygall talks about the 1995 UN World Conference on Women in Beijing and the protest done by disabled women at the event because they couldn't get into the conference. Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright showed their support.
Screen Reader Q&A #3
Susan Sygall - "The Anniversary of My Accident"
In 1995 we all started hearing about the UN World Conference on women in Beijing. We got a grand 350 women with disabilities. And I remember, because it was August 29 because-- actually, it just happened-- it was the same day of the anniversary of my car accident. And supposedly there was a workshop specifically about disabled women. And some women went to attend their own workshop. And it was on the second floor. There was no elevator. And the disabled women started making a little protest right in front of the building, saying, we can't even get into our own workshop. However, the good thing was, there was lots of different tents in the NGO session. And the disabled women, we had our tent.
And Madeleine Albright, who was then Secretary of State, she came to the tent, which was a very big recognition. And Hillary Clinton gave her magic speech where women's rights are human rights. So when we think back to the Beijing conference, we say it was the worst of times but it was also the best of times. Because in our mind, it was the beginning of the international disabled women's movement.
Sygall discusses her thoughts on feminism, the women's movement and how she identifies with it.
Susan Sygall - "A Given"
I consider myself a feminist. And when I grew up, the feminist movement was about women having the same rights as everybody else. A given. It doesn't seem any more heated or complicated than that. And if you believe that women should have the same rights and the same opportunities as everybody else, and obviously disabled women being part of that movement, it doesn't really matter if you call yourself a feminist or don't call yourself a feminist. If you believe that notion, that's what's really important. But, for me, it was always of course.
Translating Rights and Opportunities
Susan Sygall talks about bringing disabled people from other countries to the US to see what's possible for disabled women in terms of health, political rights, and opportunities and take those learnings back to their countries.
Screen Reader Q&A #4
Susan Sygall - "Break Down Preconceived Notions"
And we also are interested to bring disabled people from other countries to the United States to break down preconceived notions of what's possible. So we just had a group of 21 women from 21 different countries come from our women's leadership program. And we're talking about, how do disabled women not get HIV and AIDS, how do you prevent violence against disabled women, how do people with disabilities-- in this case, it was women-- pass legislations?
And if you can imagine this group of people-- we're sometimes translating in English. We're translating in sign language. We also use what we call Certified Deaf Interpreters. So a woman from Nigeria who's deaf doesn't speak American Sign Language, so we're translating from American Sign Language to deaf culture universal sign language. So you have all these cultures, all these languages. But the idea is that women with disabilities get the same rights and the same opportunities all over the world as non-disabled women.
Why Wouldn't We?
Susan Sygall talks about hitchhiking with another women in a wheelchair through New Zealand.
Screen Reader Q&A #5
Susan Sygall - "I Hitchhiked Through New Zealand"
When I studied in Australia for awhile, I had six weeks off, and I hitchhiked through New Zealand for six weeks with another person also happened to be in a wheelchair. We never thought like, oh, isn't this going to be incredible? We're going to hitchhike-- two people in wheelchairs-- through New Zealand. It was like at that time, when people took a break, people were hitchhiking through New Zealand.
So why wouldn't we do that? It just was doing what we want to do just like everybody else. And actually, we had a great time, and stayed in different people's homes for six weeks. But it was unusual, but it wasn't unusual for me, and it wasn't unusual for us.
Susan Sygall shares the accomplishments of her parents, their experiences pushing through WWII discrimination, and how their positivity gives her strength.
Screen Reader Q&A #6
Susan Sygall - "The Spirit of My Parents"
My dad was born in the border of Poland and Russia. And he did not finish high school, because of the World War II. But he self-taught himself nine different languages. So I think that my whole passion for working internationally came a lot from hearing him speak nine different languages. And my mom was from Austria-- from Vienna. My family's Jewish, and they both were forced to leave. And my mom, I'm happy to report, was the world champion figure skater. And she actually skated for Austria one day, and the next day was asked to leave the country.
My parents were such positive, optimistic people who both had amazing careers in their own right. And sometimes when people ask me, how-- you're so positive, and you're so determined. And I always think-- I definitely I think got it from the spirit of my parents.