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.
Before I worked at MIUSA on the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange project, I advised hundreds of international students coming to the U.S. to learn English at a major university. Although I also managed the admissions process, I rarely saw students with disabilities come through. I was waiting for them to reach me.
This spring, I was honored to join high school exchange students on the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), Youth Exchange and Study (YES), and America Serbia and Montenegro Youth Leadership Exchange (A-SMYLE) programs in Washington, DC, for Civic Education Week. During the event, students meet with members of Congress on Capitol Hill and share about their experiences attending high schools and living with host families on these prestigious U.S. Department of State sponsored programs.
Refusing to accept a participant with a disability on a program because that program "can't guarantee accessibility" closes a lot of doors, not only to the disabled applicant, but also to the program and to the host community or classroom. The problem with this can be likened to the chicken and the egg paradox.
If people with disabilities simply waited around for international exchange experiences – volunteer abroad, study abroad, ESL classrooms, and more - to become accessible to them, well… they might find themselves waiting for a long time. Until they start infiltrating these programs and put a little pressure on them, then what incentive do the programs have to design, plan, or budget for access and inclusion? The more that people with disabilities pursue international exchange programs, the more exchange organizations will recognize the importance of ensuring accessibility into their programs from the start.
The good news for students with disabilities is that more institutions and organizations are increasing education abroad scholarships and exploring new models to provide access to a greater diversity of students, according to the Forum on Education Abroad’s State of the Field survey in 2015. However, other top strategies, such as increasing the number of programs or diversity of programs, seem part of the everyday work already being done.
During the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange's recent #BlindAbroad campaign, I came across one of the biggest math problems for international students who are blind that are interested in studying in the U.S.
Did you know that many blind international students from certain world regions never had access to math learning beyond primary school because their teachers did not have the tools such as alternative teaching methods, assistive technology, and/or tactile graphics? The immediate solution for the schools was simple: don’t teach math to blind students.
In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we asked professionals with and without disabilities why they chose a career in international education and international affairs and what they enjoy most about their job. We noticed the word "love" came up a lot!
As I work with Stephanie Collins to get set-up for our presentation to the University of Oregon’s AccessAbility Student Union – we’re here to talk about opportunities for students with disabilities to go abroad - she moves about the room easily and swiftly. There is plenty of space and few hazards in the room. No need for her white cane here; all she needs is her panda bear-shaped memory stick containing her presentation slideshow.
I've been lucky to have not one but two mentors in my life. I'd say my parents are my mentors because my mom had such a positive "can-do" attitude, and my father also has such a passion for international activities and international travel. I feel I've combined those two things from my parents - both a positive approach for making things happen and a real global outlook in everything I do.