Think Out Loud

Transcript Of Interview With Mobility International USA's Susan Sygall

By Allison Frost (OPB)
March 27, 2020 9:30 p.m.
Mobility International USA's mural, in process, in downtown Eugene.

Mobility International USA's mural, in process, in downtown Eugene.

Courtesy of Mobility International USA


Mobility International USA is aimed at empowering women with disabilities in countries around the world. Susan Sygall, the CEO and co-founder of MIUSA, says a lot has changed since the organization started in 1981. Now, she talks less about the inclusion of women with disabilities into civic life, and more about “infiltration,” as more women with disabilities work in leadership in businesses and organizations around the globe.

MIUSA recently completed a mural in Eugene, where the nonprofit is based, as part of the city’s Urban Mural program. Now they want to make the mural accessible to sight impaired people by creating a version that’s raised so it can be experienced in a tactile way.

Dave Miller spoke with Susan Sygall on "Think Out Loud" on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Here is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dave Miller: This past fall, Eugene got a new mural, one that might be unique in the world. It features about two dozen women, many of them in wheelchairs, and it celebrates disabled female activists worldwide. It was created by Mobility International USA, a nonprofit based in Eugene and co-founded almost four years ago by my next guest. Susan Sygall has won numerous awards and honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship. Susan Sygall, welcome to "Think Out Loud."

Susan Sygall: I'm excited to be on this program.

Miller: Thrilled to have you on the program. Obviously, we're talking at an unusual time. We can get to coronavirus, but I'm curious now in this time of uncertainty and fear and just weirdness, what the mural I just described, what it means to you?

Sygall: Well, you know, I was just thinking about it. And when people have a chance, when this nightmare's over, to go down[town]. The mural is on the alley by Full City, near where Saturday market is. You'll see like, disabled women with all different types of disabilities, representing like 20 different countries. And the words on it are "Loud, Proud and Passionate" in English, Arabic, French, Spanish.

And I think for me it really is a manifestation of the resilience of women with disabilities around the world who are making changes, you know, facing incredible discrimination and hardships. And so I think for me, in thinking about the mural, I think we're in a time where all of us are needing to have that resilience, and trying to stay positive, is just a really important thing. So I think the mural really is a positive manifestation of people having the ability to make change in difficult times.

Miller: There are, as I mentioned, about two dozen women depicted on the mural. Are they based on real people?

Sygall: Yes. Actually the artist, who is also a wheelchair rider like myself, Chloe Crawford, who was working with Mobility International.

Yes, they were, for those of us who know the women from our WILD program, the Women's Institute on Leadership and Disability, they're based on actual women who attended the program. That was … just a year ago. And we are very hopeful that we will have another big program bringing another, you know, 20 or 30 disabled women around the world to Eugene again in 2021. Let's hope for that.

Miller: You mentioned the words on this mural written in five languages. "Loud, Proud and Passionate." What does that phrase mean?


Sygall: Well, actually … that's sort of our mantra, our sort of theme of our disabled women's program. And, you know, we work on leadership training with disabled women. We have women from 89 countries around the world who have participated in our program.

And I think "loud, proud and passionate" is a term that we came up with that really sort of captures the feeling of women with disabilities, feeling proud of who we are as a tribe, as an identity, being passionate about the work that we're doing. And actually, for those who maybe want a few minutes break from all the seriousness, we have a YouTube called "Loud, Proud and Passionate," a music video. And you'll hear the disabled women from all these countries singing in Spanish and Arabic. And of course, we always use sign language as well, you know our women are women representing all different disabilities.

So I think "loud, proud and passionate" is something very close to my heart. And I'm thinking of all people with disabilities and all our nondisabled allies around the world who are dealing with this crisis, and hoping that they're all feeling the strength from that song.

Miller: What was the mural painting event like or days like?

Sygall: Well, it was really, you know, you could say it takes a village to create a mural. It was part of the city of Eugene's Canvas program to create this mural. And as you said, we believe it's actually perhaps one of the only types of mural in the world.

We had our dear friend Mike from Full City helped us, Tom's Paint Pot. We had people volunteering supplies, Tom Madison from Lane Community College, helping us with design. And we had many volunteers painting it, and we were painting it out in the cold, hoping that it wasn't going to rain for a few days.

And our other hope is that with this mural,  and we have it on a website, and I know you have it on your website, we're hoping that other women with disabilities from around the world will also be painting their mural. So maybe, you know, anywhere you'll go in the whole world, you'll see this manifestation of disabled women activists making change in the world. I mean, that would be a great dream.

Miller: My understanding is that you actually have another step towards inclusion in the works. A Braille version of this mural. How would that work?

Sygall: Yes, we've been working with a company in Eugene. And because we work with women with all different types of disabilities, it's important that you know all people you know who might be blind or have a visual disability, also, you know, feel the impact of the mural.

So we're having a company is going to have, ah, description of the mural, which will be in Braille. But in addition to that, they will have a raised, tactile version of the mural so you could actually feel with your hands and get the idea of all the different women, you know, what they're wearing. You'll really get the scope of really experiencing the mural in in just a different way.

Miller: You co-founded this organization a while ago now, in 1981. Can you give us a sense for how it's changed and how it hasn't in nearly 40 years?

Sygall: Yes, sure. Well, yeah, it's amazing that it's been 40 years. You know, when we started out, we were working mainly with having people with disabilities participate in international exchange program, having the same opportunities to study abroad, the same as non-disabled people do. And we still do that.

And I hope people will go to the website if they're interested in that. But since then, we have also realized that we were all so it was important for us to be in the international development world. So we are also giving technical assistance to other international development organizations.

We're working on things like preventing violence against women, reproductive health, and also issues that affect both men and women and all people with disabilities. We working on policy and legislation, helping get laws passed around the world. So we've expanded into that field.

We are also in the field of leadership development. Again trying to build a pipeline of people with disabilities from all over the world. We teach now a course at the University of Oregon. We also are doing lots of consulting. We just did the consulting thing with Save the Children and other organizations to make sure that everybody's programs, no matter what they're doing, are inclusive of people with disabilities.

So in that way, as a small but mighty organization based right here in Eugene, in Oregon, I think we've had a really global effect. We've worked with people in over 135 countries.

Some of the things that unfortunately are still the same is that people with disabilities are still facing discrimination, needing stronger laws and policy. So, yes, we've come a long way. And we've also seen the emergence of many disabled people's organization run by and for disabled people, run by and for disabled women. So we like to say there's a global family of people with disabilities around the world.

And we say that we're moving from inclusion to infiltration, that we're not just waiting for things to happen. We're taking a much more active, an active force, to say, we need to have our rights. We need to be part of all the programs that exist, and people with disabilities need to be the leaders in making those changes.

Miller: And not waiting for people to include you, but forcing yourself into the conversation, into the situation, into a leadership role and just taking that space.

Sygall: Exactly. And we also, you know, invite organizations, foundations. We've been working with the MacArthur Foundation too. They're also being very proactive in saying, what can they do to sort of, you know, really include people with disabilities in a proactive way. So it really it takes everybody working together.

You know, we really need to sort of disrupt the status quo. We need to do things a bit differently, if we really want to have full inclusion and full rights. So, I'm just so honored.

We have an amazing staff at Mobility International. And I'm so thrilled to be, I think, in Oregon, because I think we're allowed to do … we have used a lot of home stays for our programs. We're able to accomplish so much because we are in Oregon and because of the fabulous and resilient community that we live in.

Miller: How are you doing personally these days?

Sygall: Yes, and David, you know, I've been hearing you ask so many people that, and --

Miller: I just feel so, I feel like we all should ask everybody that all the time right now. Maybe we should do it even if there isn't a pandemic. But if not now, when? Is my thinking about that.

Sygall: I totally agree. I'm doing good. I'm like everybody else, I am staying in my home, working from home.

I'm also, I'm really thankful for the people in the front lines who are, you know, doing things every day to keep us safe and to keep the situation going. And I'm really appreciative.

I checked in with my staff on Zoom yesterday. I'm going to be on a call in a few hours with women CEOs from something like 40 different international development organizations who are all checking in. We're all checking in with each other.

So I think it's really important, as you say, that we check in with our friends, that we check in with the people that we work with, that we're grateful for those who are taking risks. And to as much as possible, be realistic, be safe. And also try to hang on to that "loud, proud, passionate," feeling positive and feeling powerful. I'm hoping, hoping to hang on to that. And I hope everybody will as well.

Miller: Hear Hear. Susan Sygall. Thanks very much for joining us.

Sygall: Thank you so much and thank everybody for all you do. Be safe. Take Care.

Miller: You too. That's Susan Sygall, CEO and founder of Mobility International USA.