As a University of Pittsburgh undergrad, Jenna Baron of Laflin became friends with a student from Uganda who had lost his vision.
“He had a very moving story about having contracted measles as a child,” she said. “He was in a more rural part of the country where relevant health care and vaccinations were out of reach.”
Her friend’s story, and her own interest in East Africa, led the 2009 Coughlin High School valedictorian to apply for a Fulbright Research Scholarship to research issues surrounding disabilities in Kenya.
“I started out focused on visual impairment, but then I didn’t want to limit myself to one disability,” Baron, 23, said in a telephone interview from the Kenyan port city Mombasa. “I’ve been interviewing people involved in the disabilities-rights movement.
“I wouldn’t say they’re ‘behind,’ here, but access is definitely a bigger challenge. The demands of people with disabilities do not take top national priority.”
Receiving the Fulbright Scholarship was a coup. Out of 10,000 applications in the Fulbright Student category last year, the program awarded some 1,700 grants, a spokeswoman said. Only three of 64 applicants received grants to study in Kenya in 2013-14, according to fulbrightonline.org.
During her research, Baron learned the public stigma associated with disabilities sometimes leads families to abandon a relative.
“One man got in a car accident and had a spinal injury. His wife of 15 years left him. She said it was just too much for her to handle. … The saddest sort of situation is in special schools where a lot of parents will drop their children off and never come back.”
But there are bright spots, she said.
“In Kenya, if you have a disability and you need a wheelchair, you could make any amount of money, from zero to 1 million shillings a year, and you can have access to a wheelchair by going to your closest disability organization,” she said.
Baron said her Fulbright research “doesn’t go toward a master’s degree or credit; it’s just propelling me into what I’m going to do next.” She’s planning a career as a disability-rights activist and will begin work for a non-profit in Pittsburgh next month.
The researcher, daughter of John and Chris Miele Baron of Laflin, left the United States in November and will return in August.
“I’ve met the most wonderful people, the best friends of my life. Kenya feels like a second home,” she said, explaining she doesn’t appreciate it when Americans tell her they think Africa is dangerous. “That’s a great example of why I pursued African Studies. The image of this continent, those misconceptions, makes me so frustrated. I feel really safe here.”
Kenya wasn’t all work, Baron said. She was based in Nairobi, and her trip to Mombasa was a little beach vacation. She also planned to go on safari.
One of the highlights of the past few months was the wedding of a Kenyan friend who chose her as maid of honor.
It was similar to an American wedding, Baron said. “But there was a lot more dancing.”