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International exchange is one of those experiences that can have high stakes for someone with a disability.
A disabled exchange participant might invest so much energy convincing others that nothing bad will happen if they go abroad, that it stings that much worse if an accident does occur. Worse still, even a minor incident might result in a program to question the participant’s abilities or to project doubts on future participants with disabilities.
In May 2017, I traveled to Peru for the second time with the MIUSA-led RightsNow! project. I was part of a training visit to build the capacity of disability leaders to implement and enforce disability rights laws in Peru. We brought 31 training participants together: 30 were leaders with disabilities, and almost two-thirds were women.
In the next decades, I hope we look at students who experienced these barriers and found ways to go abroad anyways. These alumni hold the solutions, which may be replicable for others. They showed barriers can be negligible when we focus on the how.
Let’s face it: inclusion is taking waaay too long!
So what can we do?
I believe now’s the time to adopt a strategy of moving from inclusion to infiltration.
During a session at the recent InterAction Forum in Washington, D.C. (an annual event bringing together leaders from the international development field), I presented the idea of infiltration in the context of people with disabilities not waiting for life-saving programs to include them.
It has been about six years since I returned home from my last international exchange. I spent the academic year of 2010-2011 studying Spanish literature and Latin American history at the Pontifical Catholic University in Santiago Chile. Since then I have been wondering just what it was about my exchange that gave my employment prospects such a boost. We recently launched the Clearinghouse's #LifeAfterExchange campaign looking at the long-term benefits of international exchange, so this seemed like a good time for further exploration.
You could be one of them if:
Your photographs were captured on film. Actual film! That you had to get developed!
Your travel tales went un-chronicled on Instagram and Tumblr in favor of travel journals, postcards, and emails to friends (made on Hotmail or AOL accounts).
You want to re-connect with your overseas friends and host family, but you’re going to have to do some major detective work in order to track down their contact info.
To advance the rights and leadership of people with disabilities globally, we must create consciousness of a shared identity and social struggle. That means we must support the goals of people with disabilities to do international exchange – to introduce them to those with similar struggles from other parts of the world and open up a forum to share solutions.
“Yeah…that sounds interesting. Let’s do it.” I had just committed myself to spending a semester at University of California – Berkeley teaching English to Guatemalan refugees with a friend. She had found a local Bay Area-based nonprofit that helps to connect refugees from Central America with services and resources, and one of the things that they offered was English as a second language, taught by volunteers in refugee's homes.