Get to Know: BBI Director of International Programs

Born and raised in India, Deepti Samant Raja manages BBI's international efforts to advance the civic, social, and economic participation of people with disabilities

April 29, 2012

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What motivated you to work in the disability field?

I came to the United States from India to complete a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 2002. Having close family members with disabilities, I witnessed first-hand the disparity in opportunities and the lack of inclusive social systems and structures back home. However, it wasn’t until I came here and witnessed the level of accessibility in public places – such as a bus lift or an accessible restroom stall – that I began to see this as a result of environmental inaccessibility and societal exclusion. Reading into the history of the disability rights movement, I realized that rich economic resources weren’t the key driver. But it was persons with disabilities themselves who had fought for the changes and witnessed progress little by little. To me, this meant it could happen anywhere and I was deeply motivated to join this work and field.

You manage BBI’s work on the international front. Discuss BBI’s global reach.

BBI’s global reach has been increasing exponentially through strong collaborative relationships with organizations and universities from around the world. We have worked with our partners to analyze and strengthen disability related law, regulations, and policies in several regions including the European Union, South Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East. For example, BBI has worked closely with the EU towards a comprehensive, coordinated, and successful approach to promote accessibility of information and communications technology for all. Led by Chairman Peter Blanck, BBI is working with the Israeli Ministry of Social Affairs and Services to promote policy, research, and advocacy on the status and rights of Israelis with disabilities and address the needs of persons with disabilities. From 2008-2010, BBI proudly hosted the Secretariat of the Global Partnership for Disability and Development (GPDD), whose mission is to make international economic and social development fully inclusive of the needs and voices of persons with disabilities.

What is even more exciting though is the vast potential for BBI’s global reach to grow much further. We hope to transition and modify some of our successful programs and knowledge to further the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and economic empowerment, income generation, and social participation in low-and middle-income countries. BBI recently visited Ghana to discuss the development of a core set of training and technical assistance programs that would allow people with disabilities to become self-employed. We are engaging with partners in India, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Nepal to raise access to appropriate and affordable assistive technologies that can support economic and social participation as per the goals and desires of persons with disabilities. We are also facilitating the inclusion of disability in mainstream development initiatives through our close partnership with the World Bank on the recently launched Global Forum on Law, Justice, and Development, which will provide developing countries with legal solution to development challenges.

Why should all people care about the challenges facing people with disabilities?

Very simply, because it is a human condition that impacts all of us in some way or another, at some point or another. We cannot accomplish goals, such as the Millennium Development Goals, that we have set as a global society if we continue to separate and exclude a very significant percentage of our population from our mainstream policies and programs. Persons with disabilities are seen as a small and separate group whose needs should be addressed only after resources have been used to address the needs of “general society.” This thinking is faulty because general society is not mutually exclusive from persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities can be and are a functioning part of any group – such as women, children and youth, small business owners, people needing financial services, and people caught in conflicts and emergencies. As people age they can benefit significantly from programs, products, and services that are disability accessible and inclusive. Our own research demonstrates that when you improve services for people with disabilities, you improve them for all. And if you have disability-based accommodations, persons without disabilities also use them in high numbers!

You have been with BBI since 2006.  Is there one experience here that stands out? 

It is certainly hard to pick one experience. I would single out the opportunity to work in Mozambique through the GPDD. I was involved in the development and implementation of a demonstration program to work with Disabled Peoples’ Organizations, government members, and other civil society to include the needs of persons with disabilities in poverty reduction policies and programs. My interactions with persons with disabilities and their organizations in Mozambique enforced upon me the need to always connect with and learn from persons with disabilities themselves, in their local communities and cultures. It also demonstrated the importance of developing practical approaches and realistic solutions that are responsive to local challenges, social structures, and availability of resources.