Ripple Effects 1.5: Disability Culture -Turkey to Stanford

Erdem standing in a surf board with trainer behind him with surprised face.
Erdem ecstatic to be standing on a surf board for the first time in the ocean.
"In the US, on the contrary, you should ask if you need help. In Turkey, you should ask if you don’t need help."

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Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad, a podcast brought to you by 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:

Support for the Ripple Effects podcast comes from our friends at the US Department of State, the sponsor of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange Project with Mobility International USA. Learn more about the Clearinghouse at miusa.org.

[Intro music]

Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad, a podcast brought to you by 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 our #BlindAbroad campaign from our National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange project. 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.

[Music interlude]

Monica: So far we’ve been hearing from American students who are blind about their study abroad experiences. Now let’s get ready to hear from the other side of the ocean. Erdem is a blind student from Turkey who is studying at Stanford University. He’s excited to speak about his experience leaving one disability culture and entering another.

Monica: Hi Erdem, how are you?

Erdem: Hi Monica, thank you, I am very good.

Monica: I’m very happy that you are joining us today.

Erdem: Thank you very much.

Monica: So to begin can you let us know what brought you to the United States from Turkey?

Erdem: Um-hmm. I study in Koç University in Turkey in the psychology department and there is a partnership between my university and Stanford University which is called International Honors Program. And when I heard this program I really would love to come here and learn different world, different cultures, so I come here for as a visiting student.

Monica: That’s exciting. So you’re from Turkey, so as someone who is blind what was life like growing up in Turkey and did you have ongoing assistance from family members or from your community?

Erdem: Actually, in Turkey, usually you get your assistance from your parents or your friends; your family or your friends. And it is collectivistic culture, actually. You get a lot of help from your parents and your friends. Sometime it is over protection.

Monica: So this month actually marks the 25th anniversary of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Acts), and so it is still not too long ago that people who were blind or Deaf were actually placed in residential schools for their education. Today we’ve come very far from that but there is still always a lot of work to be done. So I’m interested in knowing what kind of schooling and access to education did you have growing up.

Erdem: Exactly. It’s ok nowadays but before that usually blind students go to blind schools, specific to blind people, and they get education more focused on music, actually. Not like in those kind of schools you don’t get a lot of emphasis on math or anything else. Which is one of the downsides of those kinds of schools. Nowadays we have inclusive educations. And you get the same school but for two hours a week you get also rehabilitation. You learn Braille and everything. But, unfortunately, although legally you are supported to go to inclusive classes, schools that teach everyone, some principals doesn’t like the idea and I hear some friends saying “I had very big difficulty to convince the principal to accept me into the school.” You should talk about legal issues, you should talk about ethical issues, but sometimes they don’t understand.

Monica: Yeah, we still see that today. The law can be there but sometimes making sure it's implemented fully can be challenging.

Erdem: Exactly.

Monica: So speaking about your coming to the United States, why were you interested in coming to the United States for your honors program?

Erdem: Actually, I had two big motivations. One is academic motivation, like going to Stanford, having classes in Stanford is amazing. I learned a lot. I want to be like educational psychologist so . . . but in my university there are not a lot of classes about motivation about learning, however, here I take, for example, two motivation classes, learning classes. And the other motivation, which is I think more important, is that social improvements, personal improvements. I haven’t been abroad that long so I knew that by going to Stanford I would improve my social and personal skills a lot, which I see it is true, it becomes true.

Monica: Speaking about that, US disability culture, what were some of the assumptions that you heard or that you believed in Turkey about arriving to the US as someone with a disability?

Erdem: Mostly we have very positive attitudes towards American independence and culture about disability.

Monica: So what, since we are talking the stereotype that Americans are very independent, did you experience anyone having hesitations to arrive to the US because they kind of feared entering our culture which is too independent from what they are used to?

Erdem: Exactly! Most people want to come to the US because it is independent, but at the same time most of my friends had hesitations because they don’t feel that they can handle that kind of independence because they live always with their family and they get at least assistance usually.

Monica: What did everyone say when you told them that you were coming here?

Erdem: (laughing) My friends said that you are very brave. How will you cope with US culture in two months? But my parents are still very worried. They like everyday phone me by What'sApp. But I am very lucky with my parents. Although they are worried, if they know that I really want it and it is beneficial for me, they support me. 

Monica: We want to take this time to promote our #BlindAbroad campaign, where our aim is to increase awareness to people who are blind or low vision on the benefits of going abroad. With a big thanks to our sponsors at the U.S. Department of State. You can learn more about the #BlindAbroad campaign by going to our website: miusa.org. And also make sure to follow us on twitter @MobilityINTL and #BlindAbroad. We’d love to see your comments and let others read your messages too.

Monica: And now, kind of transitioning to preparing for your arrival here. Did you connect with different organizations and different people with similar disabilities?

Erdem: Actually, I connected with one of my teachers who works with disability and she knows a lot about American culture, American life. She is Claire Ozel. Other than that I talked with Office of Accessible Education at Stanford in advance of my coming here.

Monica: How has it been for you adjusting to life in the US and living more independently for the first time?

Erdem: Actually, it is very nice. Feeling independent is a very good and nice feeling. Actually, in Turkey you can live independent as well. But like you have a lot of friends, a lot of people who are ready to help you. It is very difficult to say to them no, I don’t need help. Although you know that they are ready for you. It is very hard to resist this temptation. In the US, on the contrary, you should ask if you need help. In Turkey, you should ask if you don’t need help.

Monica: Interesting. And do you find any difficulty asking for help?

Erdem: Yes, because, for example, because in Turkey people are agreeing to help you they will get some clues from you and will ask if you need help. I tried to use that technique, like for example, I will see, OK, I don’t need help. Like, actually, I need help, but if you were in Turkey people would understand that you need help because you are not very sure. But I assume that in the US they will understand as well, but then they don’t understand. You should ask explicitly, but I understand that then that I don’t have a lot of difficulty in asking questions.

Monica: What are some of the challenges or attitudes you did face at home as someone who is blind and maybe how do you think that is different from your experience here in the United States?

Erdem: In Turkey, usually disability is seen like a very, very terrible thing. So people will ask you are you blaming someone or do you feel very bad, do you wish to have vision? The US I think people see disability as different. But I did not see any comment like did you try to have operation to have vision? Or some similar comments like are you blaming god, or something.

Monica: You heard that in Turkey sometimes?

Erdem: Yes. Like in Turkey usually people say OK, are you blaming people or do you blame god or are you regretful, do you wish having vision? It is seen as very terrible thing to avoid. 

Monica: Yes, that is a difference in the US. Rather than being seen with pity there is more pride in someone’s disability. It's not about fixing something but it is just about being included in everything and being proud of that just being one part of them.

So what would you say is your favorite memory in the U.S. I can think of one of your memories you told me, but I am not sure if it's your favorite. 

Erdem: Yeah, I have a lot of favorites. But I think surfing as you can assume, is one of my favorites. Like especially when I was able to stand up once. Yeah, it was very amazing. Especially when most people could not stand up.

Monica: . . . even if they were sighted. Great. How do you think this experience so far has changed you? What have you learned about yourself from this experience so far, coming all the way over here and doing this on your own?

Erdem: I think it’s . . . I believe that change will be seen later. I can’t see it now, but I feel like I confirm some of my assumptions about myself. \

Monica: I’m sure, like you said, once you return home, and even many years from now, this experience will continue to be with you and you’ll always reflect on this experience and how you grow from it.

Erdem: Exactly.

Monica: And what do you think people that come from different disability cultures than the US, what do you think they can do to perhaps increase their independence before they come to the US, so maybe to make their transition a little bit smoother or so they are not too fearful of it?

Erdem: I think they should understand that you can be independent in everywhere. Because most of people say . . . ok in Turkey, how can you be independent? You can be independent if you are determined. You should be able to say to people I can do that myself. Doing that will increase their confidence and they will be very, very happy to do that. 

Monica: Well Erdem, this has been really nice to hear from you and hear from your ideas and your experience here in the United States at Stanford and wanted to end with your Ripple Effect Message for our listeners. And specifically for other international students that may fear coming to the US because of the level of independence they think that they’ll have to have in the United States.

Erdem: In the US there are a lot of different cultures, a lot of different worlds, in general. And it is in your hands not only to benefit from the combination of these cultures but experiencing those cultures and telling these different cultures, this combination to other people in your environment to benefit.

Monica: Thank you for your Ripple Effect Message and your time today and we hope a lot of international students listen to this and feel more empowered to come here for their studies, research, and internships.

Erdem: Thank you.

Monica: I’m Monica Malhotra, your host for Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad. Thank you for listening and make sure to visit us at miusa.org to learn more about Mobility International USA and our mission to advance disability rights and leadership globally.