Lopez First Deaf intern at the United Nations Development Program

Gallaudet University’s M.A. in International Development (IDMA) Program graduate, Sandra Lopez, G-’17, became the first deaf intern at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and completed an internship from February to June 2017 at UNDP headquarters in New York City.

Lopez’s role was policy-oriented, helping guide UNDP’s policy development on deaf people and persons with disabilities, as well as extending the circle of professional guidance toward influencing policy to change the work environment at UNDP and their 170+ country offices, and to shape policy for the whole UN system.

Following the publication of UNDP’s 2016 “Evaluation of Disability Inclusive Development at UNDP,” UNDP reached out to Gallaudet for a partnership with the IDMA program to provide guidance for improving UNDP’s internal policies and working environment. The goal of the internship was to ultimately increase the UN’s pool of talented deaf people and those with disabilities throughout the world.

Towards the end of her internship, Lopez presented “Myth Buster: People with Disabilities” at UNDP’s Bureau of Policy and Programme Support (BPPS) on May 24, 2017. She also attended the 10th session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international disability treaty inspired by U.S. leadership in recognizing the rights of people with disabilities, June 13-15, 2017.

Lopez’s presentation addressed nine myths about people with disabilities related to social, economic, linguistic, and political issues, and their resulting negative impacts. Lopez, co-panelists, and a standing-room-only audience discussed these, along with human-interactional policy, and programmatic implications of understanding disability as a “cross-cutting issue.” The Deputy Assistant Administrator and Deputy Director for the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support at the UNDP, Sarah Poole, moderated the event.

“The lively discussions that my classmates and I would have with our instructors enriched the learning environment,” said Lopez. “I feel that the IDMA program reflected what international development is like outside the school environment. We learned how to adjust to change, how to let go of old beliefs, and how to articulate beliefs and concerns in a logical manner.”

Dr. Audrey Cooper, IDMA program director, also attended the presentation.

“Sandra made an outstanding impression on the UNDP,” said Cooper. “After her presentation, one of her policy-group supervisors turned to me and said, Sandra, is the first intern to host a UNDP Brown Bag. She is terrific. We learned so much from her and wish she could stay on as a student, Sandra was always motivated and deeply concerned about the wellbeing of others. She was engaged in collaborations to ensure their self-representation and leadership. Her dedication to applied knowledge and her creativity and warmth made her a “great teacher” to all of us in the IDMA.”

Lopez, the middle child of three siblings, is the only deaf person in her immediate and extended family. Lopez’s journey to Gallaudet’s IDMA program and UNDP started many years ago while living in a small town in Texas. Her parents, who were members of the local Lions’ Club, learned of the Texas Lions Camp, a camp specifically designed for children with disabilities. There, an 11-year-old Lopez, who met deaf signers for the first time, was exposed to a fully inclusive environment. This had a lasting influence on her and the choices she would make in her life and career-she would endeavor to break barriers, bust myths, and knock on closed doors to ensure equality and inclusion for others. Many years later, that desire would play a role when choosing Gallaudet’s IDMA program, and a UNDP internship.

After graduating from the University of Texas at San Antonio, Lopez worked as a middle school teacher for eight years-five years in deaf education and three in special education. Lopez considered attending Gallaudet for her undergraduate education but chose to keep the family tradition and attend her mother’s alma mater.

While working as a teacher, she still wanted to do more. After she met an advisor for the IDMA program during a deaf cruise, Lopez knew that the program would provide her with the educational tools needed to be a forceful agent for change and inclusion for persons with disabilities. Lopez, who would eventually become the first in her immediate family to obtain a graduate degree, resigned from her teaching position and enrolled at Gallaudet.

She chose Gallaudet not only because of the strengths of the IDMA program, but because she also wanted to be immersed in an environment that included deaf leaders, signers of diverse abilities, and cultures from around the world-which are abundantly represented in the Gallaudet community.

From the IDMA program, Lopez says she acquired invaluable skills and knowledge on social injustice, gender and sexual equality, economic development, and entrepreneurship as well as political participation.

Lopez says that the IDMA program equipped her with the confidence and ability to address many challenges that come with working in such a dynamic field that changes constantly. She feels that the program and the internship further provided her with opportunities to grow as a person, and develop professional skills and lifelong friendships.

“Interning with UNDP was the most logical step after completing my practicum with the US International Council for Disabilities (USICD),” said Lopez.

Lopez’s career goal is to become a program advisor specializing in disabilities. Ideally, she envisages being a leader in mainstreaming both deaf and disabilities issues to create an inclusive society for all. Lopez appreciates that the United States has made progress towards an inclusive society in many respects, especially in educating and improving the system to make it better for the deaf and for those who have disabilities.

“This is not so in many other parts of the world,” said Lopez. “The path has either not been started at all or is just barely beginning to be paved. As professionals of International Development, we are looked upon to lead by example.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Audrey Cooper. From left: Maria Teresa Lago Lao, Lucy Richardson, Sarah Poole, Lopez, and Sarah Rattray.

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