There’s Still Hope: My Experience with the Professional Fellows Program on Inclusive Civic Engagement

Harunah Damba is a 2022 Fellow in the Professional Fellows Program on Inclusive Civic Engagement. This program is sponsored by the U.S Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and is administered by the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts Boston in partnership with Humanity and Inclusion (HI). The following blog post was written by guest author Harunah Damba.

My name is Harunah Damba. I was born and raised in Kampala in Uganda. I am deaf and physically challenged. Growing up with multiple disabilities was very challenging. For years, I felt the need to conquer the persistent, daily hardship. As I learned to embrace my disability, I saw its value. Now, I appreciate the invaluable perspective that living with a disability has given me.

Coming to America as a Professional Fellow was so endearing and a dream come true. I had always dreamt of being in America and the idea of being able to come here and receive mentorship from top-notch professors was more than I could have imagined. I arrived in Boston on September 29 and was able to meet and interact with different accomplished individuals, including a pool of incredibly amazing young Fellows from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

Harunah Damba headshot against blue background
Harunah Damba

Settling in at the Host Site

I arrived in Tucson, Arizona on October 1, and will spend the rest of my professional experience here at the University of Arizona Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities. Dr. Wendy Parent-Johnson is my mentor. For the past five days, I have experienced how hugely diverse and inclusive the environment is. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are very highly regarded here. People are very welcoming; they love listening to other peoples’ stories and learning about other cultures. Being a person with disabilities, I have seen firsthand how societies, especially in my home country, can be unwelcoming, unfair, and inequitable. Thus, I am so happy to be here and find people who recognize my being different and still value my differences. On the very first day, I attended an adapted sports event organized by the University of Arizona Disability Resource Center. This event happens annually and brings a renewed perspective and vigor to disability inclusion in society. This experience abundantly filled my life with fresh opinions on disability and inclusion and added to the diversity of my surroundings where I felt highly regarded despite my disability status.

Group photo of six people standing
Professional Fellows, including me, Harunah Damba (third from left), Alan Onyango (first on left), and a group of Disability Resource Center administrators at the University of Arizona during a welcome dinner.

I have spent the past five days working in Dr. Parent-Johnson’s office receiving invaluable mentorship, tools, and connections to refine my follow-on project. I have had the privilege to speak to students with disabilities, mentors, and resourceful individuals in the transition roundtable meeting that supports students transitioning to independent living. I have had the opportunity to visit and interact with a business counselor at the Pima Community College — the university’s resource center that supports small businesses in Arizona. I was able to discuss my follow-on project and I received invaluable advice about business plan development, market feasibility and research, marketing strategy development, and identifying sources of capital. I have also had the opportunity to visit the Sonora Desert Museum. I was fascinated by its stunning flora and fauna — very similar to the Wildlife Education Center in Uganda. The hummingbirds, crested cranes, and swimming otters are all too familiar. I could be happy calling this place my home.

Harunah wearing a white shirt and blue pants standing near a painting of a bird pointing to it with his thumb and holding a crutch in his other hand.
I am posing with a picture of crested crane during the visit at the Sonora Desert Museum.

When I started my professional experience, I knew that it was important to extend my skills and experiences to coordinate some activities. I was able to showcase my skills in art painting at the workshop and emphasized the critical role that art plays in reimagining our perceptions.

Harunah seated wearing a smock and a facemask and holding up artwork
I am showing an art piece I painted at an art workshop and exhibition.

My own experience in Arizona is inspiring me to bring an international perspective to my work. I hope to bring my collective experiences to United Persons with Disabilities (UPWDs) and continue to leverage lessons from this Fellowship to create a collaborative work environment where people with disabilities can flourish.

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The Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) promotes the inclusion of people with disabilities in school, work, health care and community activities.

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Community Inclusion

The Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) promotes the inclusion of people with disabilities in school, work, health care and community activities.