By Musuleng Natasha Jackson (YES 2017-2018, Liberia, placed with PAX in Vancouver, WA)
As a young, visually impaired Liberian, who was privileged to travel to the U.S. for an academic year, I didn’t realize at the time how life-changing this experience would be for me. The moment I set foot on American soil, I was received with warm embraces, love, respect, and inclusion, and my disability became a more distant thought. My stay in America was like a home away from home (except for one thing — the freezing weather!)
As an exchange student in the U.S., the values of love and respect for others were reinforced. And my self-confidence grew so high that I could, and still can, break through any storm of life without a bit of doubt in my ability. This tenacity and belief in myself fueled my decision to apply for a YES Alumni Grant for Kukatonon (We All Are One), a spelling bee bringing students with and without disabilities together.
Liberians are warm people, who love and welcome everyone with open arms. But the myth of persons with disabilities (PWDs) having been cursed or being witches has denied the smooth coexistence of the two communities. I believe that every Liberian, with or without a disability, has the right to feel the joy of inclusion and belonging like I did in the U.S. PWDs in my community have long struggled with the pain of exclusion; however, I knew I could find a way to encourage inclusion. Academic and social activities have been used in Liberia as a means of reconciliation since the end of the civil crisis. But there has been little to no participation of PWDs in these activities, which is probably a reason why the disabled and non-disabled communities have not reconciled. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” I took this first step with my grant project. The launch of the Kukatonon (We All Are One) Spelling Bee Competition was a declaration of war — not against people, but against the lack of inclusivity.
Kukatonon was held in three rounds on February 19, 26, and March 4, 2021, at the Tecurd Institute in Brewerville City. The competition brought together 20 elementary school students, ten with disabilities and ten without disabilities, from four schools. Messages of inclusion were shared by project volunteers, and these messages were proven by the competition itself, where anxious spectators watched students with disabilities lock horns with non-disabled students. After hours of non-stop competition, two students — one with disabilities and one without — were finally declared as both sharing first place!
The aim of this competition was to expose the strengths and values of both students with and students without disabilities — to find common ground where both communities can meet, relate, and coexist. And this project was an eye-opener and myth-buster for many of the spectators. “I didn’t know that deaf students could learn like non-disabled students,” said Joseph Geleplay, a local elementary school teacher. One student without disabilities befriended one of my team’s visually impaired volunteers, saying, “I’ve always longed to befriend a disabled person, but I was afraid that I would become disabled also.” This project achieved so much beyond my expectations. The participants with disabilities grew confident in themselves. One participant shared, “I thought sighted students were cleverer and couldn’t fail, but I was wrong.”
I’m forever grateful to the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs for sponsoring the YES Alumni Grant program. I am both grateful and honored to have been entrusted by the YES Alumni Grant program team with the responsibility of serving my community. I must acknowledge the efforts of iEARN-Liberia for supporting me through this process. A big thanks goes to the principal, administration, and staff of the Tecurd Institute for letting me use their auditorium. My heart also goes out to the administrators of the four schools who trusted my abilities and let their students participate in the competition. And to the parents of the participating students, I owe a deep gratitude. I won’t end this article without wholeheartedly appreciating my team, who worked tirelessly to ensure the success of this project.