AWAY Topics - Citizen Diplomats with Disabilities Issue
The sixth issue of the NCDE AWAY Topics encourages U.S. exchange organizations to include people with disabilities in their international citizen diplomacy programs in the U.S. or abroad.
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Inside this Issue:
- Anyone Can Be a Citizen Diplomat
- Editor's Corner
- Arranging Disability-Related Accommodations
- Planning for Inclusion
- Best Practices Spotlight
- Featured Person: Anna Hewitt
- Visitors with Disabilities Build and Share Leadership Experiences
- From the Field
Volunteers, artists, and others with disabilities explain what it takes to be an unofficial ambassador.
Nehama Rogozen, who is deaf, is a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines working with a development organization.
Listen to others with compassion and an open mind.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines, Nehama Rogozen has learned to listen with compassion. “I think growing up deaf has made me more empathetic in general to the struggles people go through,” she says. “Living in a developing country has exposed me to a wide range of [new] issues, but I have been able to learn from their point of view.”
Learn about history, culture, and ways of life and thinking different from your own.
Regenia Huffman, who uses a wheelchair, opened her heart to international visitors as a host family with CIV-Akron International Friendship. “To listen to the differences in cultures, lifestyles and social services with someone from another country is so interesting. I’d like to see more people with disabilities visiting other countries, too. I think that participating in exchange, either as a host or as a visitor, offers everyone a chance to see the abilities and needs of all participants.”
Act to understand, engage, and work with people from around the world.
John Winn, who is of short stature, used music to connect with people in Cambodia, Mexico, Russia and South Korea as part of the Rhythm Road: American Arts Abroad Program. “We almost instantly established common ground with anyone wanting to speak with us about the universal language of music. We could jam with many of our new found friends, even when we couldn’t hold a literal conversation due to our different spoken languages.”
Sarah Funes attended the Youth Ability Summit in Syria.
Embrace a role as someone who can connect and make a positive difference in the global community.
Collaborating with Syrian youth on a creative project led Sarah Funes to question cultural stereotypes. Sarah, who has vision and learning disabilities, shared: “I am more engaged in world affairs because of my Syrian experience. Now I can educate people about the United States’ relations with Syria and help correct people’s misconceptions about Muslims in the Middle East.”
One step is often missing in people-to-people exchanges – communicating to overseas partners that your organization actively recruits and includes people from diverse backgrounds, including those with disabilities. Taking this proactive step brings us closer to recognizing that all citizens are needed to contribute to our world. Start the conversation!
If your organization welcomes international visitors to the U.S.:
- Reassure the overseas partners that you will equally welcome people with disabilities;
- Tell the partners that, should a person with a disability show interest in the exchange, they should move forward in the process as they would with other applicants; and
- Explain that U.S. disability organizations have a lot to share with international visitors.
If your organization sends U.S. citizens abroad:
- Keep conversations with overseas partners focused on how, not whether, to include citizens with disabilities in programs;
- Remind the partner that people with disabilities live in communities all over the world;
- Work with the individual with a disability to make a list of preferred and necessary accommodations without assuming you know what he or she will need; and
- Research the resources in the host country.
With this base understanding, partnerships will grow stronger and the programs will be richer by having diverse voices representing the world we live in today.
Chief Operating Officer / NCDE Project Manager
If this is the first time someone with a disability is participating in your program, you may be wondering where to begin. Staff at the organization Global Citizens Network asked the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) about a student with a chronic condition who needed to keep his medication refrigerated while volunteering in rural Ecuador, where power outages are common. “We didn’t know how to handle it ourselves,” recalls Linda Stuart, the Director. “But we didn’t want to prohibit him from going on the program either.”
You are not expected to know what is needed. Begin by having conversations directly with the individual with the disability. This person is the expert on his or her disability and can tell you:
- What equipment, services or strategies he or she currently uses in daily life;
- Which of these will be portable overseas (he or she may need to research this); and
- How he or she anticipates navigating the transportation, housing, programmatic aspects, languages, and other differences in the environment abroad.
You are the expert on the structure of the program and context of the host environment; share these facts in the conversation. Be descriptive, so that together you can interpret, rather than assume, what would be needed. When describing the destination, you may discover physical or programmatic changes that could be easily adapted or think of services that you may not have thought of before.
Then, make sure to contact the NCDE to:
- Think through additional considerations specific to the location or disability type;
- Network with disability contacts in the host community or country; and
- Connect with other people who have had these experiences.
What about the student who wanted to volunteer in Ecuador? After NCDE suggested equipment to power a portable refrigerator and recommended tips for transporting medications overseas, the student embarked on the program. The experience, according to Linda, was transformative for more than just the volunteer.
“The community at our program site in rural Ecuador had had very little interaction with Americans, let alone someone who had this unique medical condition who was part of the group. People with disabilities in that community often stay at home, but here was this person, getting his health needs met while out experiencing the world. It really changed their mindset. That, to me, is citizen diplomacy.”
Looking for tips ranging from advising on air travel to preparing to travel with a guide dog or power wheelchair? Read our tipsheets.
International exchange staff wear many hats: logistics coordinator, confidante, and housing director to name a few. When people with disabilities join programs, the hat of disability accommodations coordinator is also added. Cut down on the time required to respond to individual requests for accommodation by weaving inclusion into your staff trainings and program design. For example, finding housing close to public transportation will make it easier to get around for a person who is blind or uses mobility aids to walk, and will also be convenient to other participants.
What should I take into consideration when planning?
Research accessible transportation, local disability organizations, medical supply stores, local mental health providers, restaurants with accessible bathrooms, accessible hotels, and adaptations needed for any excursions, etc. Can a local blind organization orient a participant to the community? If there are stairs, can you locate alternative entrances, freight elevators or portable ramps? Can you negotiate coverage for pre-existing conditions and/or mental health in your group insurance plans or take out a supplementary policy?
Will I still need to spend time arranging accommodations?
Yes, every person with a disability will have unique skills and accommodation needs. Even two people with a similar disability may have very different requests. Organizations that have designed programs with inclusion in mind will be able to focus on appropriateness of options, rather than doing extensive research to determine what the options are.
What can help us to prepare our organization for inclusion?
Promote disability inclusion as an organizational value by referencing mission statements and policies that affirm values for diversity, equal opportunities, and global experiences for all. Offer trainings for all staff, interns and volunteers to build their familiarity with your organization’s disability-inclusive policies, and hire or consult with qualified people with disabilities who can share their inclusion experience.
Sister Cities International invited a speaker from NCDE to their annual conference to discuss strategies for including people with disabilities in their programs. In addition, their conference banner featured a person with a wheelchair. These are useful ways to reach all members, build awareness, and invite questions. Contact NCDE for potential speakers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Exchange: Two-month student teaching program in Belize
Disability: Cerebral palsy
Why did you apply to teach in Belize?
As an English Education student, I jumped at the opportunity to gain firsthand experience related to the educational system, culture, and lifestyle in a country so different from my own.
Did you request any disability-related accommodations for your exchange?
I talked to the student teaching program coordinator about issues with fatigue, and he made sure that my homestay house in Belize was close to the school where I taught, so that I wouldn't need to walk very far.
What was your experience living in Belize?
The people were exceedingly kind and loving, and everyone in the town grew to know and look out for me very quickly. At first, I encountered discrimination due to my disability from my students and my cooperating teacher, who did not believe that I had the knowledge and authority to teach English. As we interacted more, I demonstrated my abilities, and they began to respect me and recognize me as a capable individual.
What have you done since to promote citizen diplomacy?
I attended the National Council for International Visitors national conference and gala in Washington, D.C. as an Emerging Leaders Program delegate. Upon meeting the other delegates, ambassadors from around the world, and congressmen from my state, I saw myself and others as more than individuals; I saw us as people with the wonderful power to reach across boundaries of position and opinion to touch others’ lives.
What’s next for you?
Soon I will be going to Finland, Sweden, and Estonia with Phi Delta Kappa to learn about the educational systems and practices in those countries. I can't get enough of learning, serving, and experiencing life in other countries!
Five Tips for Recruiting People with Disabilities
- Add disability-positive language and images to your brochures and website.
- Make program and application materials available in alternative formats.
- Solicit stories from the participants with disabilities for your media.
- Provide diversity scholarships.
- Connect with disability organizations.
Want more examples of how other organizations are reaching out to people with disabilities? Visit our Recruiting Tipsheets.
The local U.S. consulate in China nominated Well Zhao for the IV program after reaching out to GETCH, a non-profit school for young adults with physical disabilities, where Zhao was Vice President.
The National Council for International Visitors (NCIV) and the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitors (IV) program are working to increase the number of international visitors with disabilities in their U.S. leadership programs. Some IV programs specifically focus on disability issues, while others bring one or two visitors with disabilities as part of a larger group focusing on other fields.
Well Zhao, a non-profit leader from China who uses prosthetics, was the only person with a disability in his delegation and fully participated alongside the group. “I was treated very well by the coordinators. They even rented a wheelchair for me to use during trips that required a lot of walking or standing, such as our visit to Congress.”
Under the auspices of the IV programs, Zhao and other emerging leaders with and without disabilities have succeeded in exchanging best practices with their U.S. hosts. Observing examples of disability-inclusive education and recreation in the U.S. set Well’s wheels in motion for change at home. "I couldn’t stop asking myself 'Could I take this activity to China?'”
“The concept of citizen diplomacy - being engaged in international volunteer activity and service whether at home or abroad - is a concept that is all-inclusive and embraces Americans of all ages, economic and ethnic backgrounds, those with disabilities, children, senior citizens, working adults, parents…All Americans have the right, indeed the responsibility, to be citizen diplomats, one handshake at a time.”
Ann Olsen Schodde, President & CEO, U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy
“One of the most important things that we have learned about working with volunteers with disabilities is that the person is always the expert on their own definition of accessibility. Working in many countries, where the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) laws are not in place, we need to remain flexible and engage in detailed conversations to ensure we understand the volunteer needs…and to provide opportunities for all people to explore the world through international volunteering.”
Cassandra Tomkin, Director of Operations, Cross-Cultural Solutions
“For the International Visitor Leadership Program, we strive to increase visitors’ understanding of the U.S. and its culture and values by introducing them to the diversity of people in this country. When we include meetings with people with disabilities in our programs, we are also helping our international visitors learn about a part of our country’s history and efforts to uphold human rights.”
Amy Reid, Program Officer, World Learning