More than Schoolwork: Youth Networking in Spain
It was a Friday in spring, about half way through the semester, and as I sat listening to my teacher make her usual announcements, I began to drift off, thinking about the things I had to cram into a Friday afternoon – an appointment with the veterinarian, two hours with my reader… Then I heard my teacher say, “Oh, by the way, we are having a study abroad program this summer in Spain. To find out more information come to.…”
My mind snapped back to the present, the tedium of the vet office suddenly forgotten. I jotted down the information and showed up for the meeting the following Tuesday with a handful of questions.
I was fully aware that the program at the University of Madrid was less than a month away. I had nowhere near enough time to properly prepare, but I knew that I wanted to go. So, knowing nothing about Spain, the kind of access I would encounter or even whether the program was disability-friendly, I filled out all of the paperwork. I then properly vaccinated my guide dog and got the necessary authorization for receiving funds abroad from my vocational rehabilitation counselor. During that time, I thought a lot about whether I would be a successful student in a new and unfamiliar place. Since I would not be able to take the equipment I was used to using, could I keep up? Would my guide dog adjust to being in a new country? However, I never pondered not going and on the eve of my trip, I was quite excited to participate in the two-month program. Soon I was on my way to meet my fellow students for departure.
During my time in Madrid, many interesting and fascinating things happened to me. For instance, I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with people from ONCE, the national organization of blind people in Spain. They gave me a free orientation to the university campus and the community. They also invited me to participate in a World Blind Youth Conference, which happened to be in Madrid during my stay. At the conference, I met blind youth like me from countries all over Europe and other regions. We were a large, energetic group and during the course of the weekend we held seminars and discussed and compared the situations in our various countries. At the end of the conference, we broke up into three groups and wrote several resolutions on such topics as technology, education and advocacy. When we all got back together to fine-tune the resolutions, there was little disagreement in the group. The conference participants resolved to get together the next year to see how much progress we had made with our resolutions.
I attended two college courses while in Madrid. One was on the history of Spain. It was fascinating because we would sit in a lecture discussing the lives of some Spanish painters and poets, then we would later go to a museum or a poetry reading to admire their work firsthand. Our professor took us to museums, plazas and palaces, all the time indicating that we were to pay close attention to our surroundings because we never knew what would appear on the test. The other course was a theater class. We read and examined a Spanish play and at the end of term, we all went to see it performed.
The university does have an office for disabled students, but I didn’t use it much since our program was rather self-contained. Our textbooks were not available in Braille, but I was able to get them on audiocassette tapes. I also used a Braille note-taking device that I had brought with me, and one of the other students was a reader for me. Some of the documents I used were in Spanish Braille, which wasn’t too difficult to use since it is similar to grade one Braille, but with different punctuation. I didn’t use any of the university’s adaptive equipment, so I’m not sure what they had.
I was quite surprised by and pleased with the good public transportation systems in Spain. Our accommodations were close to the metro station, so we were able to ride the train all over the city -- even to the airport and bus station. As in many large cities, trains ran just about every five minutes on most weekdays, and there was never a shortage of taxis. I also took two trips outside of Madrid: one to Granada with some fellow students and another to Barcelona by myself. On the trip to Barcelona, I made friends with some people from Italy whom I have kept in contact with since. I felt comfortable enough to travel alone with my guide dog and the local residents never treated me negatively because of my disability.
The nicest thing about my trip was that I was able to travel independently for the first time. I consider that to be quite an achievement and would recommend this sort of program to anyone with a disability. I discovered a lot about the culture, country, food, people and politics of Spain. Due to my strong Spanish skills, I was treated almost like a Spaniard and this helped a bit. I learned a great deal and consider myself truly enriched by the experience.