Living Independently and Interdependently in Europe
“I’ve gone abroad twice before,” I assured the director of my university’s Center for International Programs and Partnerships. I continued. “I know that it might not be totally accessible, but I adapt well to different situations, I’m flexible, and I’m creative. I know that I can make this experience work for me.”
My voice sounded strong and confident, betraying the doubts and insecurities I felt lurking underneath. In the end, I managed to convince him that I was a good candidate for the summer exchange to Germany. I wasn’t sure, however, if I’d convinced myself.
I grew up with spina bifida and have used a wheelchair since the age of two. For most of my life, I focused on what I couldn’t do, instead of what I could. As I grew older, however, I started embracing more challenges and became involved with the disability community in the United States. My self-esteem skyrocketed and I began to accomplish more and more. In the middle of my freshman year of college, however, I decided that I wanted to clear one more hurdle: I wanted to go abroad. Leaving the United States seemed terrifying to me; I valued my independence, and I worried about accessibility in other countries. How would I get around?
Wanting to face my fears, I applied for MIUSA’s England Exchange and was accepted. I spent three life-transforming weeks traveling throughout Portsmouth, Oxford, and London alongside twelve other young adults with disabilities and our adult leaders. Everything wasn’t accessible, but people were willing to help. I learned the value of interdependence; one of my companions who was visually impaired would help me get my wheelchair up and down stairs. In turn, I would read menus, signs, and directions to her. Our group used our wide range of abilities to function as a cohesive unit, and we all found innovative ways to fully participate in the experience. I left England with a new appreciation for my abilities and with my eyes opened wider than they had ever been before.
I couldn’t wait to go abroad again, and it wasn’t long before I had my chance. The following summer, I was offered the opportunity (and a full scholarship) to attend a series of international disability conferences and youth workshops in Norway. Not having the security of a group, as I’d had during my England exchange, I was nervous, but I took comfort in the fact that I was attending a disability-related event and everything would be reasonably accessible. While there, I took a fjord cruise, presented on accessible transportation to an international audience, and learned about the experience of disability in dozens of other countries. I went to art museums to see original Edward Munch paintings and I tried reindeer meat for the first time. As it was in England, everything wasn’t accessible, but I remained patient and we made things work.
Going outside my comfort zone of the United States – where everything was accessible and set up for me – was a risk, but it had tremendous benefits. I exceeded the expectations and limitations I’d set for myself, and my world and my possibilities seemed endless. I saw in myself a strength, courage, and determination I never knew I had.
I later learned of an opportunity through my university to attend the European Summer Academy on Bioethics in Ludwigshafen, Germany. I immediately loved the course content and the program, but unlike my previous experiences abroad, it wasn’t disability-related, and the accessibility was extremely questionable. Would I get over there – and then regret it? My university had a certain unwillingness to send me. However, I kept on reminding myself how positive my previous international experiences had been, and I took the risk.
After landing in Frankfurt, I navigated public transportation and taxis through Manheim and eventually arrived at my new home, ninety minutes outside the city. The residence, however, was abandoned and eerily quiet. It turned out that I had been given an incorrect arrival date. I was able to call the program director, who came and let me in.
The next morning, while attempting a difficult transfer from the shower to my wheelchair, I took a hard fall and sustained a serious deep cut to my hip. In the emergency room of a local hospital, I sat with Anna, an Austrian student who volunteered to be my translator. She held my hand as the physician examined me, relayed my medical history to him, and then hugged me goodbye as I was wheeled into the operating room. “Welcome to Germany”, I thought.
Luckily, my injuries were repaired quickly and the surgeons and nurses couldn’t have been kinder. I was discharged later that day, after having had a firsthand experience with medical care in another country.
In between classes, we took field trips throughout Germany and Austria to various sites of bioethical interest. Despite the inaccessibility of the transportation and so many of the locations we visited, my able-bodied traveling companions were more than willing to help. These young adults from all over the world – everywhere from Italy to Australia – were curious about my disability and passionate about making sure I was able to participate fully. They carried my wheelchair up steps, helped me push up steep inclines, took the longer, accessible routes with me, and made sure I was able to get over the cobblestone streets.
I experienced the emotional impact of sitting in basement gas chambers where thousands of individuals with disabilities had been put to death in the early stages of the Holocaust. I went to the Council of Europe and learned how international bioethical issues were decided. In Strasbourg, France, I finally put my four years of high school French to good use. When my wheelchair broke, I was temporarily inconvenienced, but I learned the German words for “screwdriver” and “wrench”.
During one of our weekends off, I got in a classmate’s BMW, jammed in with four other students, and we managed to fit my chair in the trunk alongside all of our bags. We drove to Austria on the Autobahn, speeding at 140 kilometers an hour, and took a train to Vienna. My friends became experts at lifting and disassembling my wheelchair so that we could get on public transportation and into inaccessible areas, and they assisted me with tricky obstacles and terrain.
On my flight back to the United States, I couldn’t stop smiling with happiness and disbelief of all I had seen and experienced. The inaccessibility was tough, no doubt, and I was exhausted from the struggle, but I should never have worried before making this journey. I had hundreds of pictures and dozens of journal entries to document my trip, but nothing could fully capture the laughter, wonder, amazement, and transcendence of cultural barriers that occurred that summer.
Besides those pictures and journals, I have a few items I picked up while shopping, but my favorite souvenir is the long scar on my right hip – a gift from a kind German surgeon who stitched up my wound after a fall. It’s written on my body that with the help of others, I’m capable of more than I ever thought possible. I’m incredibly grateful for that daily reminder that my world has no limits and my abilities know no bounds.