Sara Minkara knows what it's like to be perceived as different. As a blind person and a Muslim-American woman, she has spent her entire life having to work harder than others to integrate herself in the communities where she lives.
It was that experience that led the 27-year-old Minkara to start Empowerment Through Integration, or ETI. She has made it her mission to ensure that blind and impaired children all over the world "feel they have the right to dictate how their life goes." According to ETI, of the 250 million visually impaired people live in developing countries, only 2 percent of the children among them get an education, with the vast majority missing out because of financial restrictions and cultural stigma. Initially focusing on Lebanon, where her parents are from, Minkara worked with children who had been overlooked by society owing to their visual impairments. For her work there, Minkara earned recognition and support from the Clinton Foundation.
Since then, Minkara has expanded her non-profit's efforts by launching programs in the United States, where she has gained strong support at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Minkara earned a master's in public policy at Harvard in 2014). She runs "dining in the dark" events, where participants can question their preconceived ideas about sightlessness—and she has wider ambitions to reach children all over the world.
"I'm really proud on the impact we're able to achieve on the ground in Lebanon and in the U.S.," Minkara says. "We have broken a lot of misconceptions surrounding what blind people can do and shown that blindness can be a tool to uncover abilities and see ourselves for who we really are—not who people think we are."
Both Minkara and her older sister began losing their vision at seven, owing to a genetic disorder. When she entered university at Wellesley College to major in math, Minkara lost her sight completely, a time she calls very a tough transition, as she had to learn to walk with a cane while also learning to do math in her head. Thus, her worldview—and, by extension, her work—comes from a point of view that goes against the dominant American experience. And she considers that an advantage.
"I don't think I would have been doing what I'm doing if I wasn’t blind. I've gained resilience and perseverance and creativity—that's all because of my blindness," Minkara says. "My advice to every single person in this world who has a difference is this: It can be seen as an asset or as a disability depending on how you embrace it and view it first."
Minkara's future plans include promoting inclusiveness in the Muslim world in a way that goes beyond simple appearances.
"As a Muslim, a big part of my life is my faith. But, unfortunately, across the world a lot of mosques aren't inclusive spaces, so I want to change that," Minkara says. "It's less about technical inclusion—it's not just making it wheelchair-accessible or Braille-accessible, that's the basics. It's more the feeling that everyone is welcome and valued. I think that's my goal. I want the world to believe that."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here. (Lead 3-D Illustration: Comrade)