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Public Health in Focus: Fatema Ibrahim, disability advocate

Each week in 2019, we're highlighting someone in the College of Public Health—students, alumni, researchers and beyond—for a feature we're calling Public Health in Focus. Click the photo for a portrait of Fatema Ibrahim, a Master of Science in Recreational Therapy student, or read on for the full interview.


Do you still have family in Jordan?
Well my mother’s side. My dad’s side came to the U.S., so my siblings and I are first generation college students. When a you’re first generation college student, you’re sort of held to a higher degree, so you have to set a map for the rest to follow. It’s intimidating. No one else went to college, so everything was new: FAFSA, loans, the whole thing. It was something we had to figure out ourselves, because our parents didn’t know either. But I learned a lot in the process, and I’ve gotten this far, so I think I did a good job.

How many siblings do you have?
I have two brothers and four sisters, and I’m a twin. So seven altogether.

We set the bar at a higher degree. My older sister wants to go to law school, and she’s studying for the LSAT, and I’m doing my master’s, and my other sister is completing her bachelor's before going on to her master’s. So it’s like, my poor brothers, they’re the youngest and they have a lot of expectations to meet…We’re just naturally driven. We like to succeed.

How did you first become interested in the work you’re doing now?
My younger sister has a disability. And over the years, we’ve taken her to therapy sessions, and I’ve always been watching her. Some days she was struggling, and some days she would improve. And she started taking special education classes and that helped her tremendously—Before, she couldn’t even speak full sentences, and now she can speak to us and we can understand her. And I think I’m just naturally driven to helping people with disabilities; it’s just a passion to me.

I feel that there’s an honor in helping someone. I feel like I’ve helped them go through a milestone, even if it's just really simple. A lot of our clients like to play card games and bingo, for example, but let’s say they experience hand tremors or they can’t pick up the card. What we would do is provide thicker cards or bigger cards, and because it’s a leisure activity, they won’t be thinking that it’s helping their fine motor skills and their dexterity, and they’re enjoying it. If they’re able to enjoy the activity, they’ll most likely do it throughout their days and lives. That’s what we try to aim to do: incorporate leisure but help them achieve that self-happiness and that autonomy and independence.

There have been so many opportunities I was able to have because I was I’m in the College of Public Health. I was able to volunteer so many different places and intern, and if I didn’t have those opportunities I don’t think I would have every been where I am now.

What are you working on now?
My sister, after she graduated high school—what’s next? What are the post-secondary education opportunities that are available? It’s such a weak system, that you don’t know what’s next, and because there’s such a high demand, you’re put on a waitlist. After high school, that’s it; most people end up staying at home. So I’m working on a project about developmental disabilities and post-secondary education opportunities. What's the problem, what’s the issue, how can we advocate for a better system?

For people with disabilities, it’s so difficult to find opportunities. And if you’re not paying out of pocket, you’re most likely staying at home. That’s the problem—services are expensive, hard to get, and have a number of eligibility requirements. What can we do to fix these barriers?

Fatema Ibrahim is a student in the Master of Science in Recreational Therapy program. A first generation college student, she also earned her bachelor’s degree in the undergraduate recreational therapy program. Check out all of the Public Health in Focus portraits so far.

Posted:  March 14, 2019