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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. around 1985 and so my siblings and I are first generation college students. When you’re a first-generation college student, you’re sort of held to a higher degree. You have to set a map for the rest to follow; It’s intimidating. No one else went to college and so everything was new to me: FAFSA, loans, the whole thing. It was something we had to figure out ourselves and because our parents didn’t know either, we really had to work hard to stay on track. 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 aiming to complete her master’s as well. So, it’s like, my poor brothers, they’re the youngest and they have a lot of expectations to meet…but, of course, we are willing to help them. 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 developmental disability. Over the years, we’ve taken her to therapy sessions, and I’ve always been watching her as she got older. Some days she was struggling, and some days she would see improvements. In high school, she started taking social skill and 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. 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, let’s say one of my clients experiences hand tremors or has poor fine motor skills leaving them unable to pick the cards up or hold them. What I, a Certified Recreational Therapist, would do is provide adaptations and modifications to enhance participation, such as providing thicker/bigger cards or having a stand for the cards to sit on, and because it’s a leisure activity, the client wouldn’t be thinking that it’s helping their fine motor skills and their dexterity, because they’re enjoying the leisure activity. 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, autonomy, and independence.

There have been so many opportunities and experiences I was able to take part in and I am so thankful to be in the College of Public Health. I was able to intern and volunteer at multiple locations and if I didn’t have those opportunities, I don’t think I would be where I am now.

What are you working on now?
I am currently working on an issue revolving around post-secondary education opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. My sister, after she graduated high school—what’s next? What opportunities are available for her? It’s such a weak system, and you don’t know what’s next, and because there’s such a high demand for services, you’re put on a waitlist. After high school, that’s it; most people end up staying at home especially if they have to pay out-of-pocket. 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 especially if parents are unaware of what’s available. That’s the problem—services are expensive, hard to get, and have a number of eligibility requirements potentially excluding many candidates. 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