The seed that would grow into Fulbrighters with Disabilities (FWD), the first global, virtual, disability-centered chapter of the Fulbright Association, was planted in March 2020.
“We’d all gone abroad expecting to immerse ourselves in our host cultures,” said Itto Outini, then a Fulbright scholar studying journalism and strategic media at the University of Arkansas, “and then COVID came along and trapped us all indoors.”
Though Arkansas never implemented a full lockdown, Itto had recently undergone a major surgery. Now immunocompromised, she had no choice but to quarantine herself in her host family’s home, where she whiled away the early months of the pandemic reading, researching, and engaging in hours-long discussions with friends.
“Lots of people were lonely, or even just bored,” she recalled. “A Fulbrighter would post something on social media, and since we were all there, we all started liking and sharing each other’s posts, and then we started realizing that we were all having similar experiences as international scholars in the time of COVID and thinking about what kinds of resources might make things easier.”
At the same time, virtual conversations were emerging around the shared experiences of people with disabilities. Itto, who’s totally blind, had a stake in these discussions, too.
Online, she observed, most advocates seemed to agree that the virus itself, as well as masking, stigma, social distancing, and lockdowns, presented new, potentially deadly obstacles to people with disabilities. On the other hand, many noted, by mainstreaming virtual school and online work, COVID-19 had finally delivered accommodations that people with disabilities had been calling for, for years, creating opportunities for individuals and populations historically left behind.
A few months into the pandemic, Itto found herself uniquely positioned to initiate a conversation with David Smith, Shaz Akram, John Bader, and Christine Oswald of the Fulbright Association about how to better serve a certain intersectional constituency, Fulbright scholars with disabilities, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the following months, these talks continued to evolve until, on April 5th, 2021, Itto formally founded Fulbrighters with Disabilities, the first of its kind.
“Whether you’re a current or prospective Fulbright scholar, a student or scholar with a disability, an advocate, an ally, or a friend,” said Itto, who served as FWD’s president for a year before stepping into the role of chapter representative, “you’re welcome to join.”
Anyone who’d like to join the chapter, request access to existing services, or suggest or offer new ones may send an introductory email to email@example.com detailing how they’d like to be involved. FWD strives to welcome the widest possible range of insights, expertise, and skills, for
only a diverse and innovative membership will be equipped to tackle the unforeseen and unforeseeable challenges that come with breaking new and long-neglected ground.
“We’re figuring everything out as we go,” said Itto. “For example, even the name—it took us forever to agree on what to call the chapter, and we still missed something. If you’re using a screenreader, as I do, and you come across the abbreviation ‘FWD’ in lowercase, it might read it as the word ‘forward.’ That can be confusing since it’s in our email address.”
Yet if this glitch is inconvenient, it’s also serendipitous. “As scholars with disabilities, we’re all working to support each other,” Itto went on, “so that we can finally move forward together. We’re trying to make the Fulbright’s mission of peace through education accessible to all: to take everyone forward and leave no one behind.”
By Mekiya Walters
Communications Specialist with Fulbrighters with Disabilities | MFA in Fiction from the University of Arkansas