Ripple Effects 1.9: Storytelling & #BlindAbroad Wrap-up

Emily smiling while standing in front of large waterfall holding her white cane.
"I would have missed that opportunity if I had let people tell me what I can and can’t do."

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Support for the Ripple Effects podcast comes from the U.S. Department of State, the sponsor of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange Project administered by Mobility International USA. Learn more about us at miusa.org/ncde.

Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad, a podcast of Mobility International USA, where we hear the powerful and vivid stories from people with disabilities going abroad and the positive impact these experiences have on shifting ideas, for everyone, of what is possible.

For our first podcast series we will hear from people who are blind or low vision as part of #BlindAbroad, a campaign from the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange project sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. We hope the heart of their stories resonates with you the listeners to empower more people with disabilities to go abroad.

I’m Monica Malhotra, a Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA and your host for Ripple Effects.

Episode Transcript: 

Emily Molchan a senior at the University of Dayton in Ohio has gone on a number of international exchange programs. In high school she went on an exchange to Spain for a Spanish cultural immersion program. And her sophomore year she went to Ecuador for a service trip and also went to Buenos Aires, Argentina for Study Abroad, where she also hopped over to Uruguay for some exploring!

Today we will read a story written by Emily about her experience abroad. The story will be read by Ashley Holben with MIUSA.

Storytelling:

"From the day the doctors told me I was visually impaired, I was told I couldn’t do things that sighted people could. Well, I’m glad I never listened to them. Three languages, four counties, a thousand stories and a brown belt in two martial arts later, the word ‘can’t’ doesn’t exist in my vocabulary. 

When I was in high school, there was a two week trip to Spain. The second I heard about it, I made up my mind to go and saved up $2,000 to pay for the trip myself.  I packed my bag and off I went into the great beyond. The teachers on the trip were about as concerned about me as my parents. They had never taken a blind student on a field trip before, let alone to another continent, but truth is that being blind abroad is the greatest experience anyone could ever hope to live. 

I climbed every bell tower in every cathedral from Madrid to Granada and explored every castle. Every step I took was like thrusting my life in fate’s hands, but I took each one fearlessly.  It was an exhilarating adventure. Every second of every day was an endless adventure and I never wanted it to end. When it did, I couldn’t wait to travel again.

A couple years later, I was offered an opportunity to go to Ecuador on a service trip.  I jumped on the opportunity.  It was my first time in Latin America and again the first time they had had a visually impaired student go on the trip.  Being one of the only ones on the trip who spoke Spanish, I found my travel companions relied more on me more than I relied on them.  It seemed as if they had all forgotten I was blind as soon as we landed in the country. 

We stayed in a rural town in the cloud forest to work with children at an elementary school. Our cabin was about halfway up the mountain and the nearest road was about a mile away. We walked through a field of knee-high weeds to a washed-out mud path that led downhill to a rope bridge. This rope bridge was at least fifty feet off the ground and could only hold one person at a time. Once we made it across, we weaved up the mountain through thick jungle as they told us stories in Spanish about jaguar and anaconda attacks. 

I used my feet to feel the ground in front of me and placed each foot with precision, a skill that proved useful one night when our host family suggested that we all go on a night hike in the rain. Standing between a wall of mud and a dead drop to the river fifty feet below, seeing nothing but blackness, I never felt more alive.  When you go abroad, you don’t go to see the tourist attractions, you go to become part of a way of life and realize what you are truly capable of. I never thought I’d find myself clinging to the side of a mountain, but it happened and I found a new part of myself that I never knew existed. I used my hands and feet to see and ended up becoming the eyes of the group.

This summer, I spent a month in Argentina and was pleasantly surprised about the disability services in the country. Neither the Study Abroad program nor the university had ever had a visually impaired student before, and although at first everyone was kind of running around trying to figure out what to do, both did whatever it took to make sure I had everything I needed. Not only did the program provide accommodations, but the entire country was prepared for visually impaired people. 

The public transportation was excellent and it seemed like people in Argentina knew what a white cane meant even more than in the US. Everyone always offered their help, and while at times it honestly felt like they were too helpful, living there gave me a certain sense of independence. I could walk three miles across Buenos Aires by myself and cross all of those six, eight, and ten lane roads like it was nothing. Growing up in small town Ohio, I never imagined myself walking freely in such a big city, but looking back I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

During my time in Argentina, I took a boat to Uruguay and a plane to the Brazilian border. In Uruguay, I explored Colonia, playing with stray dogs and jumping from rock to rock on the coast of the Mar de Plata. When I flew north, I went to Iguazú to see the biggest waterfall in the world. The whole trip built up to the boat ride under the waterfalls. We each paid two-hundred-fifty pesos and were so excited to go after hearing all the stories. At lunch time, our tour guide approached me and told me that blind people were not allowed to go on the boat. I folded up my cane and told her I was fine. She didn’t believe me, but I had become quite good at playing sighted and was able to convince her. 

She was going to tell the captain of the boat and see if he would let me go, but after watching me work my way down the slick stone stairs and narrow, mud path, she didn’t say a word keeping my cane hidden in her bag until I had gotten off of the boat and climbed up to the meeting point. I was so glad that I broke the rules and went anyway. It was an unforgettable experience and I smelled like the river for a week. I would have missed that opportunity if I had let people tell me what I can and can’t do. 

I live every day of my life without regrets. I have a million dreams and I’m going to make every one of them a reality. If you say I can’t do something, I guess that will make it a million and one." - Emily Molchan

Stories of jaguars and anaconda attacks did not stop Emily Molchan, a blind woman from Ohio, from “thrusting her life in fate’s hands” as she says about being fearless abroad. She climbed every bell tower in every cathedral from Madrid to Granada and explored every castle. She went over unstable rope bridges and hugged the cliff’s edge in Ecuador.

Emily’s Ripple Effect message is “If you can dream it, you can do it”. Thank you to Emily Molchan for sharing her Ripple Effect story with us.

Series Wrap-up:

Thank you for tuning into our first series of Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad for the #BlindAbroad campaign!

We want to thank everyone who has participated in the campaign by tuning in, sharing your stories, and sharing the message. We have built up the tag #BlindAbroad, so now if anyone searches for resources online, they will now access a bank of resources and know more about the limitless opportunities.

And speaking of resources, the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, which is sponsored by the US Department of State and administered through Mobility International USA, aims to increase participation of people with all disabilities in international exchange, such as studying, volunteering, interning, and researching abroad. We do this by providing tips and strategies for participants going abroad, as well as organizations and university’s that administer international programs. We also have many online success stories from students with all types of disabilities that have come to the US or gone to another country.

I want to leave you with three take-aways for this first series: 

The first one is, if you are someone who is blind or low vision, you can go abroad. Please contact our office if you have any questions on how to make it happen.

The second one is, if you are an organization or university that administers international exchange programs, know that people who are blind or low vision do go abroad….and as you look to diversify the students that go on your programs, make sure you know that disability is diversity. You can give us a call or review our online resources to know how to support students with disabilities and how to recruit more students with disabilities for your programs. 

And finally, if you know someone with a disability, show them the world of possibilities by asking them to go to our website at miusa.org and to connect with us on facebook and twitter.

And another big thank you to The Jay Jones with Squiddl who has been our producer for the podcast. Thank you Jay…he’s standing right next to me. “Thank you Monica and MIUSA.”

We hope you continue to tune in to our next podcast series, which will begin at the start of the new year, on international students and visitors with disabilities coming to the US 

And we’d like to thank the U.S. Department of State, sponsor of our first series for the #BlindAbroad campaign.

I’m Monica Malhotra, your host for the Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad podcast. Even though this series of the Ripple Effects podcast is finishing, we hope the message never stops. Thank you for listening!