Interview with Claudio Berther

claudio berther uc berkeley


Claudio Berther is an in-house lawyer with expertise on the intersection of technology and Swiss, European, and American privacy law. He’s also a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, and to his knowledge, the first Swiss national with a disability to become a Fulbright scholar. From 2005 to 2012, he studied public law at the University of Zurich, earning a Bachelor’s and a Master’s. During this time, he spent a year abroad at the University of Georgia, where he got his first taste of American culture. In 2019, he returned to the US, this time on a Fulbright scholarship, and earned his LLM from the University of California, Berkley, the birthplace of the American disability rights movement. He weathered California’s notorious wildfires and smog, as well as the advent of COVID-19, challenges which, he says, have only made him stronger. Since 2021, Claudio has served as a board member on the global, virtual chapter of the Fulbright Association, Fulbrighters with Disabilities, helping scholars with disabilities navigate cultural norms and academic institutions. It was my pleasure to interview my fellow Fulbrighter and friend for ABILITY Magazine.

Itto: Good morning, Claudio! Thanks for agreeing to sit for this interview.

Claudio: I can only sit for interviews. I’m in a wheelchair!

Itto Outini: Right, of course! [laughter] Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself? Where are you from?

Claudio Berther: Sure. I’m from Switzerland. I grew up in the mountains, in a very small village called Danis, where everybody knows everybody. As a kid, I was known as “the one with the disability.”

Itto: Were you born with a disability?

Claudio: Yes, I was born too early, with a lack of oxygen. As a consequence, I have cerebral palsy, which makes me use a wheelchair. I have a Swiss-Trac™ motor that connects to my wheelchair and pulls me. It’s very strong. When I don’t need it–for example, when I’m in someplace narrow, like an elevator–I can just detach it, and then I have a regular, manual wheelchair. It’s great. It gets me everywhere.

Itto: You’ve traveled a lot, haven’t you?

Claudio: Yes, all over Europe, Africa, and both coasts in America. I love traveling, meeting interesting people, learning new cultures, just basically being an adventurous person despite my cerebral palsy and my wheelchair.

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Itto: What’s traveling like for you, as a wheelchair user?

Claudio: There will always be unforeseen challenges. But that’s something everyone experiences. It’s actually helped me a lot, personally and professionally, because I know not everything goes according to plan, and that fosters a certain mindset of not giving up when you’re facing adverse situations. I think that’s a very useful skill, especially today, in our ever-changing world, and it’s one that all disabled people have to some degree. That’s something I hope more employers will see and start appreciating in the future.

Itto: Exactly. I feel the same.

Claudio: As for traveling, one thing I’ve learned is to take all your paperwork with you, and take extra time, and be ready for surprises. If you do those three things, then traveling gets a lot easier. Not completely hassle-free, but easier, and definitely worthwhile.

Itto: You came from a small Swiss village, and you ended up at Berkley? 

Claudio: Yes! Well, first to Zurich, then to Berkley. At the University of Zurich, that was the first time I wasn’t singled out as “the one with the disability.” There was more support, more recognition. Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland. The head of the Counseling Center for Studies and Disability, Olga Meler-Popa, was very supportive. She helped make the transition to Zurich much smoother.

Itto: And what did you study?

Claudio: Law. With a concentration in public and international law in Zurich, and privacy and technology law in California. That’s one reason I was glad to go to Berkley, because California’s at the forefront of technological development.

Itto: Can you tell our readers a little bit more about the Fulbright Scholarship? What is it? A scholarship for persons with disabilities?

Claudio: Not for persons with disabilities specifically, no. Basically, it’s a scholarship given by the US Department of State, either to US citizens or to international students and scholars. It was founded 75 years ago, right after World War II. The idea was to foster cultural exchange between the US and other parts of the world. They like applicants who have interesting stories and can show they have the ambition to take what they learn abroad and implement it back in their home countries. When you finish a Fulbright, you’re required to go back to your country and work there for a certain number of years. How many depends on the country and the program. That’s what I’m doing now: applying my law and technology training at a scale-up here in Switzerland.

Itto: Which scale-up?

Claudio: It’s called Yokoy (www.yokoi.ai). We do AI-based spend management. It’s already an international company, with offices in Zurich, Vienna, Munich, Amsterdam and soon in the US, too. In July of 2021, we had 30 employees. Now it’s around 100, and they’ve raised $26,000,000 in Series A. I think the Fulbright really helped with that, changing the scope of my work, expanding it geographically, but also content-wise and in terms of professional connections. It’s an amazing network of people all over the world. As a lawyer, for example, with an international company, it’s great to know lawyers in all different countries. If I need to know about the law somewhere, I can easily find someone to ask. International employers like to see the Fulbright on your CV. It helps that way. And it helps establish mutual respect. For example, once, I was negotiating with a counter party, and all of a sudden, he sent me a connection request on LinkedIn. And I was wondering, “Why is he doing this when we’re negotiating?” And then I saw that he was a Fulbrighter and even had the same professors in Berkeley as I did. Even though he was more senior than me, it helped with the negotiations, just knowing we had this experience in common.

Itto: Did you feel supported as a person with a disability? Were your Fulbright advisors trained to help persons with disabilities?

Claudio: As far as I know, Fulbright advisors don’t get that training. So, that part was a little tricky. There are some other Fulbrighters with disabilities out there, but I think none from Switzerland, so there was no one I could talk to about disability and accessibility issues with first-hand experience while I was applying, no “unofficial channels” where I could ask frank questions, for example, about how to get around, how to find housing, what disability-related resources are available.

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Itto: Why do you think that is?

Claudio: There are lots of challenges. Lots of other things that have to work for somebody with a disability to go to a foreign country, study at a different university and succeed. I don’t mean just academics; I’m talking about all kinds of things: logistics, transportation, personal care. Of course, as I said, there are some Fulbrighters with disabilities, as you know–

Itto: Yes! I’m a Fulbrighter, too, and I’m totally blind!

Claudio: And we’ve worked together on the Fulbrighters with Disabilities chapter.

Itto: The virtual chapter. Which we started this year.

Claudio: At this point, I think, it’s still the only resource for scholars with disabilities through the Fulbright Association.

Itto: What other resources were available to you? Did you receive support before you boarded the plane to California, or did you have to learn to adapt as you went along?

Claudio: We had some pre-departure meetings at the US embassy, where general things were discussed. I was able to raise some disability-related questions. I also did a one-week orientation in New Jersey. They hosted it there so we could see different parts of the country. We got exposed to lots of on-the-ground technicalities, plus more general cultural knowledge. That was called the Fulbright Gateway orientation. I definitely recommend it to any grantee. Some of the people I met in New Jersey ended up in Berkley, too. It’s always good to have some contacts on the ground when you arrive, to help you navigate everything.

claudio golden gate bridge

Itto: How did you learn about the Fulbright?

Claudio: I had a good friend who told me I should apply for the Fulbright when I asked about studying in the US again. My first reaction was, “Well, I don’t know…it’s too prestigious…” but she said, “Why not try? What do you have to lose?” That was two or three years ago. I didn’t apply right away, but after some time, my situation changed, and I thought, “Now would be a good time to try,” so I tried. And after a rigorous process, I got it.

Itto: Congratulations!

Claudio: Thank you! My advisor was helping me find the right place to study, because of course there’s a lot of universities in the US, and they send us all over. I asked my advisor if it would be realistic for me to apply to Berkley, and his reaction was, “They may just love your story out West. I would not discourage you to try.” For me, that was like, “Okay, this person sees so many applicants, and if he tells me, ‘I would not discourage you to try,’ then it’s definitely worth trying.” And I tried. And I got it, again.

Itto: What made you want to go to UC Berkley?

Claudio: When I was doing disability advocacy, I visited a conference at the National University of Ireland in Galway, where they showed a movie about the Americans with Disabilities Act. I learned that Berkley and the Bay Area played a big role in that movement. It was basically the birthplace. And, of course, I knew about Silicon Valley and technology, too, so I got really interested in going. I couldn’t afford UC Berkley, but then, when I got the Fulbright, that was a significant contribution. They also helped with admissions. Berkley’s very prestigious, but when you’re applying to a university, if you’re a Fulbrighter, they’re the ones who send your application. There were maybe 6,000 applicants the year I applied, but I stood out and was competitive because of the Fulbright and my combination of interests and experience in disability advocacy and technology.

Itto: How did Berkley being the birthplace of the American disability rights movement impact your experience? How would you compare it to when you studied in Athens, Georgia?

Claudio: Generally, in my experience, the US is pretty friendly for persons with disabilities. I got that even in Athens. I always knew that public places should have ramps, they should have elevators, they should be accessible. If I have to go to the toilet, there should be a toilet that’s wheelchair-accessible. I didn’t have to ask. Private businesses don’t have that requirement, but just knowing those things are taken care of in public places makes life a lot easier. But there are some additional things in Berkley. One thing I found really amazing was a company called Easy Does It. They offer three main services: personal care, transportation for wheelchair users, and a wheelchair repair shop, all in one. Basically, there were some people with disabilities sitting around together in 1994, saying, “What do we need to function in our daily lives?” And they figured out three things: “I need to get dressed, I need to go to places, and if my wheelchair breaks down, I need to fix it.” So they started a company that offers those services. I was really impressed! I thought, “We should have this everywhere!” I ended up using their personal care service because of the pandemic. It’s an emergency service, not for everyday use, but with Corona breaking out all of a sudden–

Itto: Right! You were there when the pandemic started!

Claudio: Yes. The whole fall semester was smoke and wildfires, which caused power outages, and the spring was Covid. It was an interesting year to go on the Fulbright! I had a personal care attendant, but when Covid started, they didn’t feel comfortable coming to the international house with 600 people. But Easy Does It understood the situation, and they made sure I got through the final weeks of the semester.

Itto: And now you’ve graduated?

Claudio: Yes. We’re all still waiting on our graduation ceremony. Berkley promised they would do one for us once the pandemic’s over. Everybody was expecting it would happen this year, but, you know…these days, nobody really knows.

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Itto: I hope you guys get to celebrate your accomplishments soon. How else has the pandemic affected you, as a person with a disability? How are you dealing with the isolation?

Claudio: I have regular Zoom calls to catch up with classmates from Berkley. We got really connected with each other, especially us Fulbrighters, because we were going through all this together. I think the pandemic and everything actually made me a stronger person. It gave me self-confidence to deal with challenging situations. Now, if I’m facing a difficult situation, I can just think back to all the difficult situations I’ve already overcome, and learn from them, and tell myself, “I’ll overcome this one, too.”

Itto: So, now you’re an international lawyer, and an international advocate for persons with disabilities, and you help support new scholars with disabilities, especially new Fulbrighters. What advice do you have for new scholars with disabilities? 

Claudio: The same thing I tell everyone: if there’s something you want, just go for it. Just try. Even if you don’t know what will happen.

Itto: That’s so important. For us, especially!

Claudio: Exactly. We never know what’s going to work, so we have to try everything. We can’t afford to say from the beginning, “This won’t work.” If you’re an academic with a disability and you’re interested in the Fulbright, don’t be shy. Just try. If you have a disability and an academic career in your country, that’s already an interesting story. The Fulbright might be interested. You just need a strong personality and to be open to adventures and things not going according to plan. And you have to be willing to ask for help. In my experience, most people want to help. They just don’t know how until you tell them. So, you have to ask.

Itto: Speaking of asking, you mentor scholars with disabilities, right?

Claudio: I told the Fulbright Commission in Switzerland, and also UC Berkley, if you have any prospective students or grantees with disabilities who want to talk to someone, I’m more than happy to chat with them. I was contacted by UC Berkley about two weeks ago because they have a new student with a disability who was just admitted and wanted to talk about the practical matters, like, how do you get around, how do you organize this and that. I know what it’s like to start an adventure like this, and having some of those details cleared out of the way beforehand makes it easier.

Itto: How can readers reach you if they want to talk about those issues and those opportunities? 

Claudio: The best would be through the chapter, Fulbrighters with Disabilities.

Itto: Thank you Claudio.

Claudio: Of course! Thank you.

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