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Walking through a sea of white canes and guide dogs at a national convention of the blind community, I started introducing myself as “sighted,” which I had never done before in other contexts. Almost every time I said it, I received a reaction, such as “Oh…I assumed you were blind.” This may have also been due to me asking the blind attendees to help me with directions.
Rummaging through my conference tote-bag, I had to find out the room for my presentation. I asked my co-presenter, who is blind, for the room number.
Anyone concerned with promoting wider participation in study abroad by students with disabilities, or anyone who just needs some encouragement to keep facing hard challenges head-on, should rush to read Susan Sygall's terrific personal memoir, "No Ordinary Days: A Journey of Activism, Globe-Trotting, and Unexpected Pleasures." The co-founder of Mobility International USA (MIUSA), Susan and her organization already have made available a wide range of resources online and in print and offer workshops and conference panels to help all of us do a better job of expanding access to study abroad.
“Have you had students with disabilities on your programs?” I ask this of each study abroad colleague I meet. Sometimes they have detailed stories to share, and even a “thank you” for advice we had given them through our free information and referral services.
Other times, more than I care to admit, I hear back: “There are some destinations that just won't work for students in wheelchairs.”
When I was a college student at the University of Oregon, I spent a lot of extra time on campus outside of class, whether working at one of my part-time jobs or internships (hello, MIUSA!), meeting advisors, studying at my favorite café, or snoozing in the international student lounge (hello, comfy couches!) My roommates rarely saw me. I always thought it was funny how one my friends would prefer to walk home between classes rather than linger on campus, even if there was no time to actually spend at home before it was time to walk to his next class.
If you are like most international exchange professionals, some of the best moments of your job have been making the dream of going abroad possible for someone who thought it was out of reach. Maybe it was money. Maybe it was lack of family support. Others didn’t have a role model. And some have faced discrimination and rejection. Have you ever thought about how you – just one person – can make a difference for people with disabilities?
At Mobility International USA, everywhere I travel I am in awe of the youth leaders with disabilities I meet who are changing the world. At Mobility International USA (MIUSA), we are working towards a world where all people with disabilities achieve their full human rights through international exchange and development. We believe that the path to a more inclusive world lies in people with disabilities connecting with their peers and allies across the world and working together.
At a recent event I attended, talk turned to how many young people with disabilities there are in the world and why aren’t more going abroad? And there are a lot of them, between 180 to 220 million by some estimates – enough to fill the entire country of Brazil, the world’s 5th most populous country. I polled my colleagues to ask how many of them had recruited a young person with a disability to study abroad. About 25 people raised their hands – almost half -- and they applauded each other’s efforts. But I wasn’t cheering.
As a leader responsible for coordinating many MIUSA exchange programs, I often reflect on what makes MIUSA exchanges unique. I have discovered that the power of MIUSA programs lies within the richly diverse composition of our exchange delegations. Whether walking or rolling down a street in Amman, or facilitating a discussion on empowerment with women from diverse cultures in Latin America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia – over the years I have learned to notice the nuances within a group.
On a recent trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, I spent a morning at public school #202, a small school for the blind tucked into a residential neighborhood. My visit coincided with outreach for the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program, a high school exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
As I climbed the stairs to an auditorium on the second floor, I caught a glimpse of several clean but sparsely furnished classrooms. Although there may be computers and other technology available for the students’ use, I didn’t see any.
When international educators discuss increasing the numbers of people participating globally, the focus is on “What will convince them to travel abroad?” or “What barriers can we remove that are in the way?”
Maybe the international field would reach new people by understanding “What pushes the growing numbers to choose to study abroad?”