December 12, 2019

Belarus is making progress protecting the dignity of people with disabilities, but there is still much work to be done. Among a number of critical issues, physical barriers continue to segregate and exclude people from the daily lives of their communities.

In summer 2019, a group of 11 advocates determined to remove those barriers traveled to the United States on a three-week international exchange program designed to help them make professional connections and learn about best practices. They came away motivated and better equipped to drive change.

“Thanks to this program, I’ve seen how an environment that enables people of all abilities to move and function freely and safely should be designed and executed,” said Aliaksei Kurt-Nazarau, one of the program’s participants. “Upon my return home, I will make every effort to replicate this experience in Belarus.”

The exchange was one of many that World Learning has organized through the Community Connections Program Belarus, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. This program brings together professionals from Belarus with their U.S. counterparts to share experiences and practices as well as insights and ideals of a democratic, free-market economy. Exchanges take place in U.S. host cities across the country, focusing on a specific theme, such as this one on disability rights. World Learning has been implementing the program since 2012 and supported programming for 500 participants.

This summer’s exchange was hosted in partnership with the Cleveland Council on World Affairs in Cleveland, Ohio. Over the course of three weeks, the Belarusian delegates visited public spaces across the city — including baseball parks, zoos, and museums — to see firsthand how they approach being accessible to people with disabilities. The cohort learned about accessibility initiatives in meetings with local government, civil society, and community leaders; volunteered with local organizations; and took part in workshops on how to empower vulnerable groups and combat social stigmas faced by people with disabilities.

“Here in the U.S., we have observed the true embodiment of ‘Nothing about us without us,’” said participant Iryna Rusakovich. “Each session demonstrated that people with special needs are actively and proactively participating in the processes that shape their lives. They are enthusiastic and energetic members of civil society; movers and shakers; drivers of positive change.”

This particular program was also notable because it was inclusive itself. Several prospective delegates had never been able to travel internationally for work due to their physical disabilities. World Learning and the Cleveland Council on World Affairs collaborated to ensure the exchange was accessible to all delegates.

One of those participants was Eduard Kluisha, a photographer who illuminates the lives of people with disabilities and advocates for their agency and value. Kluisha uses a wheelchair and, while it’s common for exchange programs to hire in-country caretakers for participants with disabilities, World Learning and USAID agreed to cover the travel costs of Kluisha’s father, his regular caretaker, in order for him to fully participate in the program. Since then, USAID has created a new policy enabling family members to join exchange participants when deemed necessary.

“I can’t overstate the importance of including delegates with disabilities (like myself) in professional exchange programs,” Kluisha said. “It is remarkable that you are doing this.”

At the end of the program, members of the group were even more determined to make change in their communities.

For Alena Lauranchuk, an advocate for children with mental disabilities, that means implementing programs that will create independent living units for people with disabilities and promoting alternative approaches to mental health rehabilitation.

The U.S. exchange developed the way Lauranchuk plans to implement those programs. To date, she’s forged a partnership with a local community-based organization. Now she’s going to expand on that by linking together major players including national and local governments, NGOs, and educational institutions. “I have finally envisioned how to create an entire support ecosystem,” she said.