Interview with Ashir Wilson

I’d never met Ashir Wilson before this interview, but I knew who he was, for we run in the same circles. Below, we discuss his pioneering work as a blind experimentation associate at UNDP Pakistan and his philosophy of disability, development sector work and education. It was a pleasure to finally meet Ashir, whose talent and ambition are matched only by his off-the-wall humor and infectious good cheer. He’s the sort of person whom you really have to meet–though hopefully, this transcript does him justice, too.

Itto Outini: Good morning, Ashir!

Ashir Wilson: Itto! No! It’s goodnight! It’s 12:00 a.m. here!

Itto: [laughter] I’m sorry, I forgot! I’m so glad we finally have this chance to meet and talk. How are you doing?

Ashir: Doing well, doing well. Just a little stressed from all the holidays.

Itto: I know what you mean. They can be stressful.

Ashir: Especially this Christmas season. It’s been so difficult! Going here, going there…tomorrow, I must attend this New Year’s mass…lots of running around. Also, I’m having a cold, and before this Covid, if you had a cold, it was just a normal cold. But now, if you have some cold, people assume you’re having Covid! Sometimes the stigma scares me.

Itto: Me, too. I agree. At least we’re talking over Zoom, where there’s no Covid! Can you start by sharing a bit about yourself? Maybe tell us about your disability. Were you born blind?

Ashir: I was born blind. I have two siblings. All of us are blind.

 Itto: All of you? Wow! Were you the first to get an education?

Ashir: No, no. My eldest sister, first she attended school. Then I followed.

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Itto: How was your sister’s experience, as the first in the family? What did you learn from her?

Ashir: It was different for each of us, but I think good as well. For me, there were many challenges, but after navigating through them, then things started going well. But that’s not the case for everyone. I know many people who can’t navigate those challenges. Life is very difficult for them. Luckily, I had support from friends and family and was following my sister.

Itto: What challenges did you face in school? How did you overcome them?

Ashir: I started at a school for the blind, but unfortunately, in my country of Pakistan, we have the preschools for persons with disabilities, but the resources aren’t there for good education. For example, I reached 10th standard before getting any exposure to English. If you want to be competitive, you have to go to the school for non-disabled people.

Itto: So, you did first through 10th grade at the blind school, and then 10th through 12th at the school for the non-disabled?

Ashir: Exactly. When I arrived at the normal school, I had to start by learning languages. Communication. I had that by 12th standard. Then I decided to pursue my education further, but when I was seeking admission to college, first they said, “Okay. You’re a brilliant student. We’ve seen your grades. But how do you compete in the classroom with sighted people? I’m sorry, but we can’t let you in.”

Itto: That’s not fun.

Ashir: No. But I didn’t give up. I reached up to the higher authorities. I wrote letters and emails. They asked me to come for another interview. After one or two interviews, they said, “Okay. You’re right, now. Welcome.” That’s how I got in.

Itto: How did you navigate life at the university?

 Ashir: Pakistan, you know, it’s in South Asia, and South Asia’s not a region where you have things like, for example, digital libraries, digital dictation, assistive technologies. Not at the public universities. Now it’s getting better, but not at the time. The books were all hard copies. I had problems with the librarian in my department, which was international relations. The librarian said, “We can’t give you a library card. All these books are useless to you.” Fortunately, I had friends and people from my classes who were willing to help me. Later, I talked to my teachers, and they started recording their lectures. Somehow, I completed my degree.

Itto: What did you take away from those experiences, besides your degree?

Ashir: It changed my perspective. Usually, people with disabilities stay by themselves. We focus on our own issues. But public university taught me it’s not just about persons with disabilities. We’re all in trouble, us young people in Pakistan. 65 percent of us are young, but we don’t have the capacity at public universities, so not enough of us are getting education. We can’t keep up with the global standards. As a person with a disability, I need inclusion, but I need to be included in a system that’s working, not failing and broken. When I understood this, I broadened my scope. I started working on capacity-building for young people in Pakistan.

Itto: What does capacity-building mean?

Ashir: Capacity-building means training for people, building communication skills, teaching technology. I don’t yet have an organization, but I want to start one. The problem is, it takes lots of time, lots of money. You have to give 20, 30 hours a week, and you’re not getting paid. You need other people to help you, but how do you pay them?

Itto: Are you partnering with any organizations?

Ashir: Not this year. I’ve mostly been working with UNDP. But before, I was volunteering with an organization based in Turkey. They started a program called Model Organization of Islamic Cooperation (MOIC), which is based on the Model United Nations. The idea was to take young people from different Muslim countries, which might not have good resources, good education, and connect them with each other, connect them with resources, then train them as policy leaders.

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Itto: Interesting. How does this work?  

Ashir: They started by building clubs at universities. Club members plan activities, have lectures on different topics, do simulations on various issues. Then they draft policy recommendation papers. If the papers are good, MOIC helps polish their recommendations and takes them to conferences. We had a conference here in Pakistan in 2018. I was on the organizing committee. But then this Covid happened, and it slowed things down. But they’re still working. They’ve already launched in many Muslim countries.

Itto: What other projects are you working on, besides that organization?

Ashir: Just some small things with friends. As I said, we don’t have funding. But, for example, I did a podcast series with an academic in the US who has her own organization, Critical Connections. Also, I worked on a webinar series that’s against religious extremism, covering topics like faith and harmony, how to moderate your religious sentiments, those sorts of things.

Itto: Do you consider yourself an activist?

Ashir: I don’t call myself activist because I don’t go on TV or anything like that, but I love talking with people. In my personal life, I discuss these things with people, and I think it helps them learn.

Itto: What about UNDP? How did you end up with the United Nations?

Ashir: I first applied for something called social inclusion officer, which is a volunteer position. I didn’t get selected. After that, my profile was on the roster and big people were seeing my name and knowing about my passion to join the UN. They were tagging me for this and that, ads for different positions. In the beginning, I didn’t apply for things because it was all so new. Sometimes, I couldn’t even understand the job descriptions.

Itto: You worried you might not have the right skills?

Ashir: Exactly. How would I know which skills are right when I don’t even know what this position is?

Itto: How did you overcome your fear?

 Ashir: Five people from my circle tagged me for this accelerator lab position, so I thought, “Okay, why not apply?”

Itto Outini: What do you do now with UNDP?

 Ashir: I’m an experimentation associate with the accelerator lab. Our job is finding better way to do things. For example, our country office is working on plastic waste management. So, let’s suppose we used to say, “We must increase the infrastructure.” Now the Accelerator Lab comes along and says, “It’s not just about the physical infrastructure, it’s also about the behavioral infrastructure.” It’s never simply one thing or the other. It’s many things contributing to the problem. We look at different parts, and then we intervene and close all the loopholes.

Itto: Speaking of solving problems, what challenges are you facing as a professional with a disability in 2021? How do you overcome them?

Ashir: Okay, for example, working remotely. As a person with a visual impairment, sometimes you have accessibility issues with the documents, and you can’t explain this to your team because they’re sitting so far away, and you’re feeling isolated. These are things I had to overcome.

Itto: How so? I mean, when you’re working remotely and the document isn’t accessible, or your screen reader just suddenly stops working, what do you do?

Ashir: People help me. My girlfriend, especially. I want to give a lot of credit to my girlfriend. She’s in Sri Lanka, but she helps me remotely. For example, I don’t know the alignments of the document, so I send them to her, and she sees the alignments and fixes them.

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Itto: How important do you think that is for persons with disability? Getting help from other people?  

 Ashir: Very important. Sometimes, with the visual parts, I start feeling like, “This isn’t my job, it’s not something I do, why bother?” But it’s like going the extra mile. My supervisor never gets angry or anything when I leave out the visual parts. But when someone helps me do them, he gets so happy!

Itto: Do you worry about the stigma of dependency?

Ashir: I’m not saying, “Be dependent.” Not at all. My way is, first I try to do the work myself, and if I try it three, four, five times and if it’s not working, and there’s a time crunch, then I’ll go to that other person. But I always try to do things.

Itto: Is your supervisor supportive?

Ashir: Very supportive. He never holds me back from doing anything. I do everything: daily operations, financial transactions, lab reports, organizing events online, in person…each and every little thing, I do. My supervisor even took me on a field assignment. Five days in the field, doing plastic waste experimentation. As a person with a visual impairment, that’s a very big achievement.

Itto: Did you have an assistant? How did you navigate the visual parts?

Ashir: No, no. Only me and my supervisor. He would help when I asked for assistance. When he wasn’t around, I would ask local people. I would say things like, “Oh, God, I can’t see, and I need to go to use the restroom! Can you kindly take me to the restroom?” They would take me, and I would talk with them and hear their stories.

Itto: Which tells you more about the place where you’re working.

Ashir: Exactly. That’s a connection with the local community.

Itto: That’s wonderful. It sounds a lot like my experience with UNDP. People are very understanding. They know we have different needs and require accommodations. Even when they don’t know how to help, they ask. But, I’m wondering, since you’ve worked for other organizations, how would you compare them?  

 Ashir: I’ve been fortunate. I worked for a local policy think tank, and the team was so supportive. But it’s also me. I have very good communication. I want to do resource mobilization, which means building partnerships and connections, so I’ve developed good communication skills. A lot of persons with disabilities don’t have those skills. I’m speaking for my local context only, maybe there’s something I don’t know, but I’m not aware of any organization that teaches persons with disabilities communication skills. It’s nobody’s fault, but in professional settings, it’s where problems start, usually.

Itto: What’s your advice for persons with disabilities trying to overcome those communication barriers? Because it’s also a cultural thing, I find: in many cultures, for many, many years, people with disabilities have been neglected and pushed to the side. So, there’s not really much knowledge getting passed down from generation to generation. How do you think we can change that?

Ashir: Training people according to their needs and aspirations. Not everyone needs my type of communication skills because not everyone wants to do resource mobilization or work for the UN. Somebody might want to be an entrepreneur. Somebody else might want to be an engineer. We have to train people according to their aspirations. In my experience, the organizations aren’t bad, but they want people with communication skills, which is why they don’t choose us. Also, sometimes, the people at the organizations don’t have communication skills themselves. Sometimes people ask me, for example, “If I use the word ‘disability,’ is it fine? Is it okay? I hope you’re not offended. If I’m using the word ‘blind,’ is it fine? I hope you’re not offended. If you’re offended, I am really, really sorry.” There’s no need for all this. I’m an adult with an education. It’s my job to say, “Be comfortable. Ask about my disability as you’d ask my name, my father’s profession, my mother’s profession.”

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Itto: How else should we encourage persons with disabilities to navigate the non-disabled world?

Ashir: We need to make people more confident. For example, sometimes persons with disabilities don’t want to go alone to a restaurant, but we should encourage this. When people interact with the outside world, it helps them.

Itto: I see. I agree.

Ashir: Also, I want to say one thing, which might be considered very rude, very ruthless, and I might get blamed later, but I would say this now: if you make persons with disabilities sit together, away from other people…I mean, what is your ultimate goal? Who are you helping? Maybe it keeps us comfortable today, but it holds us back tomorrow.

Itto: I agree.

Ashir: As for other ideas, I’m in favor of legislative quotas. We have this already for minorities, for women, so why not for person with disabilities? It’s already there in some places. For example, Uganda. Uganda has quotas for persons with disabilities in their legislative assemblies. So, we should follow this model. Also, there’s this SSI for persons with disabilities. It’s in Europe and the US, but it not in our countries.

Itto: What else?

Ashir: Scholarships for persons with disabilities. There are scholarships for so many other groups, but none for persons with disabilities. Also, maybe we could have an investment platform.    

Itto: What are investment platforms?

Ashir: It’s where you gather a bunch of investors on one platform, and you share some big projects that people are working on, and they choose where to put their money. So, I’m thinking, maybe you can have a system where investors fund a scholarship for persons with disabilities to get an education, and when they’re done, they go to work for the investor for three, four, five years.

Itto: I really like these ideas. I can’t wait to share them with our readers. We need to wrap things up, though, so I’ve just got one more question for you: What would you most like people to take away from reading about you?

Ashir: I have three things. One is to please start looking at disability issues from a technical viewpoint, a viewpoint of problem-solving, not only with empathy. Second, stop thinking about persons with disabilities as if we’re all the same, with all the same needs and the same limitations and aspirations. Third, I want to build connections. I want to get my projects going. So, if you’re reading this and you have some interest in collaborating or investing or something, please contact me!

Itto: Thank you for taking the time today. Wishing you the best on all your projects.

Ashir: Thank you.

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by Itto Outini

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