International Experience to the U.S.: Count Me In!
I had the opportunity to meet Susan Sygall from Mobility International USA when she came to Oaxaca, Mexico, to finalize details of a Disability Leadership exchange that was to take place there in the summer of that year. She explained that my background, work experience, and interests made me a good candidate for the Young Adult International Leadership Program in Eugene, Oregon that was planned for the coming summer.
The exchange tied into my work as a social worker with people who are blind. I successfully completed the application and interview process and raised the necessary support to participate in the exchange. The opportunity to experience other cultures allows me to open my mind and understand more about human behavior. I have always been fascinated by human psychology and I love being able to support and encourage others as they grow in confidence and develop leadership skills. I brought wisdom and experience with me to share, and I returned to Mexico with much to share from my new companions from all over the world.
Traveling implies an interchange of learning: no matter where we may go, we learn from others and at the same time they learn about us. I have participated now in several international exchanges with people with disabilities — as a delegate, an intern and co-coordinator. Each of these experiences has renewed my confidence in the power of people with disabilities to come together to resolve problems and remove physical, political, attitudinal and economic barriers. For myself, I have gained a world of ideas each time I’ve had the opportunity to spend concentrated time with people from other cultures. The formal workshops I participated in and the lengthy, lively discussions I’ve enjoyed with folks from Palestine to Denmark to Japan to Slovakia have enriched my life and my work with ideas, thoughts, ways of confronting problems, and the rich knowledge, gained from making mistakes that I apply to solve problems and create change in my own community.
I feel it is important for people with disabilities to be involved in international exchanges for the same reasons that it is valuable for anyone. In experiencing other cultures and facing challenges not found in one’s own culture, growth is inevitable. Additionally, though, when people with disabilities spend time learning and living in other countries, they break down all kinds of barriers for themselves and other disabled people. They provide encouragement to people with disabilities in other countries by demonstrating that anything is possible. They also gain a deeper, broader understanding of disability issues in other cultures and, I hope, a sense of connection and identification with others who are working for change. This has certainly been true for me and for the many people I’ve met over the past couple of years.
Some Tips for Exchange Coordinators
I’d like to offer some practical advice to organizations that coordinate international exchanges and, in particular, internships. I am speaking from the perspective of a blind person; however, much of what I say is equally appropriate for people with and without any kind of disability. It is important for the first two weeks to offer intensive physical orientation to the community and to the exchange site. Ideally, this should be done by the exchange leader or intern coordinator as the time spent in orientation is time spent learning about the intern/exchangee’s skills, strengths, interests and goals. In this way you will be able to design the internship to develop that person’s skills. Orientation can also be done by another staff person, a volunteer, or someone from a local organization that serves people who are blind. This would include orienting the person to the bus routes s/he will take regularly, learning where key sites are in relation to each other and spending time walking around key neighborhoods to get an idea of the rhythm of the streets. Also, a person who is blind needs intensive orientation to the exchange site, whether it be an office, a project area or a campus. It is important to describe the location (to the right of, to the left of, below, on top of, inside, etc.) of furniture, files, doors, supplies and so on and their spatial relation to other objects. One of the most useless things to say to a blind person is, “It’s over there”!
Talk with the people before they arrive...find out if they prefer written materials to be in Braille, large print, on tape or on diskette. Establish open, honest communication about what is necessary and what is possible. Tell them what the site is like — the terrain, the layout of the village or campus, what the office is like. Ask questions about what they feel would be helpful and necessary accommodations so that they can experience the same level of independence, learning and success as their peers.
All programs and projects are made up of many parts. It is important, especially for interns, to spend ample time in each area of work so that they have a good understanding of the whole. I believe one week of intensive involvement in each area would be ideal. Also, involve interns in complex and interesting projects. Don’t assume that a person can or can’t do something...ask. Explore ways of doing work differently. People with or without any kind of disability have made the decision to be involved in an international experience to learn, to grow and to challenge themselves.