In 2013, while visiting the United States to participate in an exchange program for professionals, Haiti’s Doudly Elius acquired a motor disability.
When he returned home, he was having difficulty walking and soon found that some day-to-day activities were no longer accessible to him and, worse, that some people discriminated against him.
But Elius was determined to overcome these challenges, and as he set about to do it, he saw others struggling. Haiti’s 2010 earthquake had left thousands with lifelong disabilities from their injuries. Employers incorrectly assumed someone with a disability cannot work.
Haitian women who live with a disability find it especially difficult to find a job or finance a business. Elius, to help himself and others, founded the program Empower Haitian Women.
“Having a disability cannot prevent you from going ahead or from making progress,” he said.
Using his business skills and a network of contacts developed during the professional exchange, Elius trained women living with disabilities in business management, communication and leadership.
“I believe that if they can see me as a disabled person doing all this, then they can too. The only thing that they lack is the skills, and I go and give that to them,” he said.
After submitting a formal plan to the State Department, Elius became the first Haitian to win a grant from the department’s Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund, which supports public-service projects proposed by alumni of State Department exchanges.
He used the $20,000 grant to train 40 women to create a business plan from start to finish over a two-week course in September 2015.
Recently, Elius met with Judith Heumann, the State Department’s special adviser for international disability rights. Heumann grew up in New York City at a time when schools there did not welcome her because she used a wheelchair and was unable to walk. But, she says, her parents were adamant that she get an education equal to her brothers’. (They teamed up with other parents to force local schools to become accessible to students with disabilities.)
Heumann’s personal experiences with discrimination have led to a career as an advocate for people with disabilities around the world. As special adviser, she leads U.S. efforts to promote and protect the rights of people with disabilities internationally, and she works for their dignity and full inclusion in their societies.
Elius talked to Heumann about his desire to train more women and girls — if he could expand to a full-year program, he could help 500 women and girls gain business skills. He hopes to also help them develop strong networks for collaboration and support.
“We are stronger when we work together,” Elius says of people with disabilities. “We may suffer together, but we will overcome any obstacle together. … Don’t go alone. Go together.”