This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Silvia Ursu didn’t know too much about St. Louis before coming here about two weeks ago.
Now that she’s here, Ursu says she’s found a great city that’s taken the steps to ensure equal rights for people with disabilities.
Ursu, the communications coordinator of the National Organization of Disabled People Federation of Romania, is in town observing Paraquad’s public policy and advocacy department as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Professional Fellows Program. Paraquad is one of 16 non-profit organizations chosen by the State Department to host a foreign professional as part of the program.
In addition to all she’s observed, Ursu’s gotten to have a little fun, too. “I love jazz and blues and you have a lot of options here,” she says.
Ursu’s trip ends in a few days, and before she heads home, she took some time to speak with the St. Louis Beacon about disability rights here and in Romania.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You’re here in St. Louis to learn about local, state and national efforts in promoting equal rights for people with disabilities. How did you come to St. Louis, and Paraquad, instead of other places around the country for this experience?
Ursu: Paraquad is one of the most powerful organizations regarding disabilities and disability rights. I’m interested in two things, both advocacy and community organizing, and in Paraquad I have the chance to work closely with Sarah Durbin, who is an advocate and a director there, and also a team of community organizers.
How does what you’ve found in St. Louis compare with disability rights in Romania?
Ursu: I think here legislators are more attached to their communities, they know the problems of their communities, and also it is easier to reach them. You can pull them off the floor and talk to them. In Romania, this is more complicated. You have to go to meetings, some of the time they don’t show up. But I think my organization, the National Organization of Disabled People Federation of Romania, and Paraquad have similar visions about disabilities because we both fight for disability rights and we mediate for independent living.
What cultural and social issues are different between the U.S. and Romania when dealing with rights for people with disabilities?
Ursu: In Romania, people are very distrustful that they have a voice and they can be present in society. As you may know, before our democratic republic, we had a communist regime until ’89. In that period back then, they weren’t acknowledged, they weren’t in the books.... and now it’s their turn to know and to let them have a voice and participate in the society ...Here, I think that you practice democracy, you don’t just learn it, you practice it. As far as we are concerned, it’s more learning about things, and when it comes to practice, we have a lot to learn.
In the fall, Paraquad’s Sarah Durbin will come to Romania to visit you. What do you think she’ll learn in Romania that she will be able to bring back to St. Louis?
Ursu: I think it’s another view, and it’s important in your work to have different perspectives. I can’t point out just one thing, but I think another perspective on disability will help both me and Sarah.
You’re here as part of a professional fellows program, which seeks to help people find solutions to issues in their own countries. What else have you observed or learned since being here that you’ll take home with you?
Ursu: The most important thing, I think, is I gained some skills regarding community organizing. Also, both in Paraquad and the trainings we had before coming here, we learned about empowering disabled people and empowering a minority group; that’s a really important thing. Also, I’m a communication coordinator, and here we learned about messaging and how to target a campaign ... I will use that also.