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.
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.