Reflection: Being Part of a Group and Having a Disability in Thailand
When I decided to become a part of the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) Khon Kaen summer program in Thailand, I knew many challenges lay ahead. Most of the ones described on the program website were intellectual, such as learning about the impact of globalization in Thailand. But as a person with a disability, I knew many of the challenges would be physical as well.
I had previously visited Thailand six times and developed a comfort level to which I had become accustomed. For me, the main challenge of the CIEE program was to take my current comfort level and gradually increase the amount of physical obstacles present there.
Daily life in Thailand presented me with many barriers, from the uneven pavement and buses with high steps to songthaews (small pickups with two rows of seats in back) that are packed with university students. Methods I used to deal with these obstacles included taking tuk-tuk taxis (a sort of three-wheel motorized version of a rickshaw) and relying on friends with motorcycles. I also dealt with obstacles by not doing too much in one day and pacing myself. I found that I could deal with mono-temperature water and Thai style showers (spigot out of the wall), but squat toilets still presented problems.
The CIEE program included several activities over the course of the summer. The orientation hike at Khao Yai National Park was listed in the program guide as a “90 minute not-too-rigorous walk through the jungle.” That not-too-rigorous walk was one of the toughest hikes I have been on, encountering many leeches as well as log bridges crossing rushing streams. It challenged me physically as well as mentally. I just wanted it to be over and felt it was pushing my limits a bit too far, yet I wanted to complete it. I had to constantly tell myself that I was able to do this and that I did not want to turn back. Although I felt a little uncomfortable, there was always a helping hand. I could not have done the Khao Yai hike without every member in the group. The experience taught everyone about the importance of group effort. After the hike, I was glad I had completed it and felt a real sense of accomplishment. Although leeches and log bridges were not in my comfort level, I realized I could handle them.
The villages also presented a number of challenges: steps and stairways (railings are a rarity), bathing facilities and the overall design of the houses. I managed these obstacles by talking to the resident director and seeing what we could do about them. The solution we came up with was to prescreen my houses to make sure there were no steep stairs and that the bathroom had amenities which would allow me to bathe easier.
CIEE also has a safety net set up whereby participants who are sick, injured or otherwise unable to participate have the option of using alternative accommodations for the night. There were two places that were too far beyond my comfort level, Thani Asoke and Mae Mun. My decisions not to stay at these locations were based on mobility and accessibility issues and safety concerns. Mae Mun was far more serious of the two sites. It was raining buckets and the slippery conditions presented an added safety concern. At Mae Mun, I recognized that spending the night there would have been a flying leap rather than a small step.
I was glad CIEE’s safety net existed, but when I needed it, I felt guilty as I sat and thought of the other participants having sore feet at Thani Asoke and being water-logged at Mae Mun. I felt concerned that I was not contributing to the group process. At first I was not sure the group understood, but at the next group meeting, I was given a chance to explain. I think they began to understand my concerns and they also let me know that I had fourteen people I could depend on. During the program, I sometimes felt left out, while at other points I felt that the group worked well together as a team.
Another aspect of the trip was learning about disability issues in Thailand. During my past six trips there, the only disabled people I had come across were panhandlers on the streets of Bangkok. Yet I knew that Thailand was not immune to disabilities, and as a student with a disability, I wanted to learn more. I decided to search for the ever elusive physically challenged and get their take on living in Thailand.
The first person I found was a 30-year-old man named Somchai. His motor skills and speech were significantly impaired by a mosquito-borne virus contracted as a child. Though he received no formal education, he did find employment. He works as a day laborer in construction, which involves carrying heavy bags of cement. In the past, he received a 600 baht per month grant from the Ministry of Social Welfare. However, it eventually ran out and he was forced to find alternative forms of income. As a budding musician, he began to use his drumming talent by playing music at friends’ parties.
After talking to him and listening to his music, I got the impression that Somchai was very comfortable with his disability. He said the only time he thinks about it now is when he plays soccer with his friends. He subscribes to the attitude of accepting his life for what it is. He has done his best—with some help from his parents—to lead a full and meaningful life in a country that, from my experience, is not well equipped for people with disabilities.
After talking to Somchai, I went to talk to a group of ninth grade students at the Khon Kaen Special Education Center. Students of this school range from grades one to nine and live at the school. For the most part, students with disabilities are rarely sent to ordinary schools in Thailand. Educational opportunities for them are severely limited, particularly in higher education. By visiting this school, I wanted to get an impression of the goals and aspirations of the students and see what the education system was doing to prepare them for life in Thailand. Of the ten students I spoke with, four wanted to be mechanics or electrical engineers, four wanted to go into business, one wanted to be a teacher, and one wanted to be a tour guide. While the goals seemed in line with those of the average ninth-grader, I worried that the preparation for these jobs would not be available.
The school only goes up to grade nine, and the students expressed concern about their impending graduation. The teacher discussed the possibility of attending a technical-vocational school that goes to grade twelve, but this will probably be a reality for only a few students. While now segregated from the rest of the population, they will soon have to face accessibility problems throughout the city, such as wheelchair ramps that have a foot-high step up to them and public transportation that is far from user-friendly. While the school has done a good job giving the students a world that accommodates their needs, I can only hope the rest of Thailand will one day be as accommodating.
You might say, who can ask for anything more — adults with employment and students with goals. Well, I can ask for more, and I hope Thailand does too. As our exchange group learned about the changes and conveniences Thailand hopes to offer as a developing nation, I could only hope these changes will go beyond such things as providing fast food restaurants, and will include plans for the inclusion of people with disabilities. Thailand can work on not only accepting the presence of disabled people in society, but also having them actively participate. I hope they do not merely tolerate those with special needs, but value their unique skills and talents.
Despite Thani Asoke and Mae Mun being beyond the limit of my comfort level, CIEE summer Thailand was a success. I pushed my limits and had fun in the process. This program not only showed me my current limits, but it also showed me how much potential exists within me. The main conclusion I drew from the entire program is to reexamine physical and mental abilities and make constant reassessments of capabilities. Everyone can do (almost) everything—they just have to want to do it.
To learn more about Council on International Educational Exchange programs visit www.ciee.org.