If I had to summarize my time with EDF into a simple phrase, I believe I would call it “a practice in managing preconceptions”. As much as I tried to avoid doing so, I did come into this internship with a series of expectations as to what EDF and my work would be like. I should preface this by clarifying that this was absolutely not a bad thing. In fact, I realized somewhere along the way that my expectations were fairly limited and did not at all affect my enjoyment of this experience. If you, my reader, are desperate for an example: I had anticipated using my French language skills quite a bit throughout the internship considering EDF is based in Brussels and my supervisor is, in fact, French. It seems, however, that Russian was much more of interest and I was given quite the opportunity to make use of those skills during my work. To be honest, I was fairly excited by this prospect and was given the unexpected opportunity to test skills I had unwittingly brought to the table.
In reference to the content of the work, I cannot say I came into this experience as a blank slate. Being partially disabled myself, I was somewhat familiar with disability inclusion within the United States and, in many ways, Europe is similar. Likewise, as a member of an ethnic minority, I was familiar with the struggles facing advocacy work and the inclusion of affected peoples. In fact, it was at this point that I chose to expand into further research throughout the internship. It is so important that those for whom one is advocating are consulted in their advocacy because no one understands a group’s needs like a member of that same group. This may appear to be a matter of common sense, but unfortunately, inclusion remains unaddressed in many forms of advocacy work. This is only one aspect of why EDF’s work is so important. In pushing for the inclusion of persons with disabilities, EDF is attempting to give the power of voice back to those who need it to advocate for themselves. My work with EDF never felt patronizing which was a secret fear of mine when I accepted the offer to be an intern. (Of course, there was no basis for this concern with EDF specifically, but in the beginning, I remained cautious of the way in which persons with disabilities would be regarded. Thankfully, no kid gloves were present.)
Returning to the topic of surprises versus expectations, I was interested to see how far-reaching EDF’s work truly is. Being a regional group (as seen in the name European Disability Forum), I had assumed – rather incorrectly – that the work would be exclusive to Europe, perhaps even a subdivision thereof. It is not, though. At one point or another, I encountered discussions about all six inhabited continents and the work unique to each which I greatly enjoyed.
As an American, many European countries (and Europe as a whole, if we are to be entirely honest) have a reputation that precedes them, whether good or ill. Through my work with EDF, it was a fascinating experience to see the internal workings of the EU and discern who among the member states lives up to their international reputation and who appears quite different than expected. We across the Atlantic tend to view Europe through rose-tinted glasses and regardless of whether or not I knew things were not necessarily all they seem when I began (I will leave that to your imagination), it was refreshing to see “the man behind the curtain”.
As I conclude my graduate program and look toward the future, I believe advocacy work is still the path I am meant to take. I chose “ethics and human rights” as my graduate concentration because I feel so deeply about the topic. If I did not, I might have chosen “politics and security” as my friends so vehemently insisted. However, this is how the cards are laid. I do want to dedicate my life to uplifting those who are struggling to be heard. In this vein, there are many diverging and intersecting paths I can take, and I believe I am rather set on the one I have in mind. Regardless of where my future pursuits take me, I can count on this experience to remind me that there is more to the work than meets the eye and progress cannot ever end.
This was not my first internship, but I can say it has been the best internship experience I have had thus far, and I hold a lot of love for EDF and this team. I am greatly looking forward to the day when the COVID-19 crisis has passed, and we can finally meet face-to-face and go over all that has happened in the meantime. Much like life, disability inclusion advocacy is forever moving forward, so I have no doubt there will be much to discuss!
Written by Dahlia Miriam