In the summer of 2015 I left the creature comforts of Ohio behind for a study-abroad/volunteer program in one of the developing nations in the Caribbean. Having never traveled outside the United States before, I had only a vague idea what to expect. A few things weighed heavily on my mind as I took off from the airport in Cincinnati. I knew I was the first blind student to gain acceptance into my program. Before I applied, another had been denied entry because the administrators didn't believe her orientation and mobility skills were strong enough for her to handle the trip.
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It was typical for Jennifer Smith* to meander through different wards of the nearby hospital in Ghana where she volunteered after the day’s classes. But on one less-than-typical day, in the children’s ward, she saw her post-college plans snap into focus where they had once been hazy.
If a prospective person with a disability meets the eligibility requirements for your volunteer abroad program, start with encouragement and then figure out together how to arrange the reasonable accommodations.
Explore the World. Create Access. Volunteer. Intern. Teach. Perform. Be a Part of the Circle of Change.
You’re probably thinking, “Wait, I have to pay to volunteer or work abroad?” It may seem counterintuitive, but keep in mind that there are significant costs for programs to send, train, and support participants abroad. Typically, U.S. sending organizations, participants, and host country partners work together to share these costs.
Most recently, Linea spent a week in Kerala, India, observing a local community mental health team, which was coordinated through Linea’s mental health advocacy mentor.
“I had never been to a developing nation before, and I went in with my American mindset that perhaps there was something that I could teach them. Perhaps there was, but I learned so much from them.”
To make the most out of your service abroad, it’s important to carefully examine your interests and skills, and your openness to partner with community members abroad who will have different perspectives. While it is not your role as a volunteer abroad to swoop in and save the day by helping others, neither should it be a situation where you are sidelined from participating because no one thought to plan for disability access. After all, interdependent partnerships rely on recognizing the contributions of everyone.
At day’s end, Antonia's mind floods with the Chilean people she has met who may be sleeping on that cold night on mattresses in the street or sharing a room with several family members. She thinks how there is always more to do, and wonders what her role is in it all.
When Antonia graduated with an International Studies degree, she wanted to know if the lessons contained in all those textbooks would hold any weight in the real world. She decided to join Jesuit Volunteer Corps for two years in Santiago, Chile to find out.
Welcome to the online A World Awaits You (AWAY) journal on people with disabilities traveling with a purpose.
This issue introduces you to people with disabilities from the U.S. who have participated in experiential programs abroad. They are volunteers, interns, performers, athletes, and citizen diplomats. Stories and best practices include the strategies that were influential in their success.