Ripple Effects 1.1: 10 Tactile Tips for Navigating Abroad

Nick walks with cane and his friend through narrow street in Spain.
Nick strolling through the streets of Spain with a friend.
"Don't let anyone tell you can't study abroad or that you can't travel abroad...It's totally possible."

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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 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.

Episode Transcript: 

[Japanese traffic]

Monica: Part of the thrill of travelling overseas is expecting the unexpected. You usually don’t want this to be too jolting though!

So what if we you had some tactile tips that would better prepare you to navigate abroad, so you can be more independent and adventurous?

Nick Hoekstra, who is blind, has spent over six years abroad, going to places such as Chile, teaching in Japan, and now getting ready to work in Ecuador. So let’s get ready to hear Nick’s countdown of the Top 10 Cultural Tips for Navigating Abroad.

[Transitional music, few seconds]

Monica:    Hi Nick, how are you?

Nick:        Good, how are you doing?

Monica:    I’m good, thank you. Thanks for creating these top ten tips for people who are blind or have low vision and are getting ready to go abroad. You have extensive experience; six years of experience abroad, and so I appreciate you coming through and sharing this information for others. But first I really want to know how you came up with these top ten tips. What, based on your own experience, kind of made you stop and say “this would be helpful for other people if they are going abroad.”

Nick:        So I think with these tips especially, it has been over the course of years studying abroad or working abroad in different countries in different circumstances. Kind of each time you learn to build upon what you’ve experienced in the past. So this top ten list that I’ve come up with, it’s not top ten in any particular order. It’s just 10 things that I’ve noticed have come up again and again, and as I’ve continued to study abroad these are things that have occurred to me that wow, this the sort of stuff that has really made a difference as far as making the transition a little bit smoother, or things to consider that you might not realize in your day to day life before you study abroad.

Monica:    So here at the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange we also provide tips and resources to help students with disabilities get ready to go abroad, but I’m really excited to take this time and have you review your tips because I found them very practical and very important ideas that can actually easily be overlooked. Let’s go ahead and get started and again this is in no particular order of importance. So Nick, give us your first tip.

Nick:         OK, so number 10 is: Learn important phrases or words in the local language that you’re going to need to get around. Words such as the cardinal directions, left and right, possibly words that refer to the reason why you are studying abroad, so if you are studying abroad for a particular topic area, learn words that refer to that because that’s going to help you have a conversation. Things like that. So especially I find knowing how to say left and right, knowing how to ask directions, those are things that are hugely important, especially when you are visually impaired and you can’t necessarily benefit from looking at a local landmark.

Monica:    We heard a clip that you sent me from traffic sounds in Japan. Did you know what they were saying? Or how did you know what that meant?

Nick:        No. Actually, at the time when I first arrived in Japan I had no idea what [*Japanese phrase*]; I had no idea what that meant. And then as I lived there for longer, after a year or so, and especially as I started to study the language, little pieces fell into place. And I realized, Oh, that’s exactly saying “The light has turned blue.” Which, blue in Japanese, is also, they use blue and green pretty interchangeably. So, basically the traffic light was telling you that it turned green and you could cross. And that was something that was so funny that you know those little things are kind of useful to know and I had no idea when I first got there what it meant.

Monica:    So the information like the traffic sounds and signals, you know, at the crosswalks, is that something you can easily find online? Because every country, every language, or course, that’s going to be different.

Nick:        You know, that’s something that’s a little more of a challenge to find online, but it never hurts to just  search it out because I’m sure that information is available somewhere. That was something I had never considered before I studied in Japan because Japan’s been one of the first countries that I visited that has really been consistent with traffic sounds. And with the crosswalks having a specific song or a specific phrase that is played. But, you know, knowing whatever words that help you personally get around, that’s the sort of stuff that you really need to learn.

Monica:    Perfect. OK, great. So how about number 9?

Nick:        Learn the names or words that refer to specific foods you would like to eat while you are studying abroad. This was something, especially when I moved to Japan, that I found extremely useful because a lot of I know sighted travelers when they would go to Japan would be able to simply point to an item on a menu when they were at a restaurant and say this is what I would like to eat. But when you are blind or visually impaired you don’t necessarily have the advantage of being able to pick up a menu and point. So, just as a really practical thing, know a couple of things that you want to try so that when you go to a restaurant you can ask for it by name. That was something I know . . . when the very first time I studied abroad was when I was in high school and I went with a group of friends who none of us really spoke Spanish but I had taken a couple of classes and one of the things we had learned in one of my classes was “sandwhich nixto,” which was basically a ham and cheese sandwich. And it was the one thing that we were able to order when we went to a restaurant. So food items really come in handy. It is something we have to do every day.

Monica:    Exactly. Before you point mysteriously at something, it would probably be a very good idea . . . it’s great to try new foods but sometimes it can be a little scary. So let’s go to number 8.

Nick:        So number 8. How do people in the country where you are traveling to get around; do they navigate with street addresses, do they use landmarks, street names? So, each one of us has our own way of navigating, of getting around, independent travel and so forth. And especially here in the United States, when I had mobility lessons when I was growing up, we focused a lot on knowing the address of a building. And knowing what street it was on and what was the nearest cross street. Which is great for navigating here in the US. But in Spain they rarely know a street address. Oftentimes they won’t even use the name of a street. In Japan the same way. In Japan they primarily know the name of the local landmark. So that is something that could come as quite a difference for a traveler as far as needing to get around. Just knowing how the local, in the local context people navigate. So, again, that is something that you could probably find online. But it is just something to keep in mind when you travel to a place. If you are trying to tell a taxi driver that you are going to be at 1320 whatever street name and they don’t really navigate by the street names, it’s going to be quite the challenge.

Monica:    A very long taxi ride . . .

Nick:        Yes.

Monica:    And now for number 7.

Nick:        Make sure to record important information such as the address of the hotel where you’re going to be staying, or phone numbers of your friends or contacts in the country where you’ll be travelling to. Make sure to record the information in some sort of accessible format, either in Braille, an i-device, on your phone. Whatever it happens to be, but make sure you have access to that information. You never know when you might need to pull up the telephone number of the person you are staying with. If you get stranded at the airport, or you miss your train, it is really good to have that information and have it somewhere where you yourself can access it. It is really, really important.

Monica:    Alright, so number 6, because it kind of has to do with number 7, but yeah, if you can tell us your number 6.

Nick:        So number 6 is keep in mind that your phone or i-device might not work in the country where you’re going to be traveling to. So, I know this is something that is practical for all people, but I think here in the US we’ve really grown to rely on our phones for everything and unless you specifically go out and purchase an international SIM card, your phone is not going to work on the local network. So, again, that applies to all people but it bears repeating.

Monica:    As you were getting ready to go to Ecuador, to begin work, what kind of preparation are you doing regarding your phone.

Nick:        This is something that I’ve recently had to investigate more and I’m very lucky in that the current phone that I have is unlocked. So when I get to Ecuador I can just purchase a local SIM cards and quickly replace in my phone, which is really nice.

Monica:    And some places have in the airport itself, correct? Or do you usually go somewhere?

Nick:        That’s what I’ve read, and I know in Ecuador from what I’ve read online, they have it right in the local airport. So as soon as I arrive I could theoretically just go purchase a SIM card right away. And I think that is becoming more and more the case. Because as people travel more internationally that's you know some of the first things people are thinking about.

Monica:    Yes, I’ve seen the vending machines for it so . . . it’s really funny. And number 5.

Nick:        So number 5. Consider working with a friend or a relative to create yourself a tactile map of the place where you’re going to be going. This, you know, obviously, this depends a lot if you’re the sort of person who reads a map. But I know, even here in the US, when I first went away to college, one of the first things I did was to make a tactile map of just the very local neighborhood where I was going to be living. And that came in so handy. Since then, as I’ve traveled abroad to other countries I’ve done this to a greater or lesser degree.

When I was first in Chile I kind of sat down with a friend and did a small tactile map just to get a general layout of the landscape of where I was going to be. And again, that’s not going to work for every person but for me it certainly gave me a little bit of a better understanding of just the local surroundings. The major streets, the major intersections. Because when you have to walk around or give a taxi driver directions it’s good to know what are the major intersections and major streets near where you’re going to be living.

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: 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:    Most of your trips abroad, have you been more independent, like on your own, or did you go with a group, or . . . because it seems like a lot these tips are kind of to guide you to be more independent and to get around on your own.

Nick:        Yes. So most of the trips I’ve done have been purely independent. Initially, studying abroad to Chile I was lucky to have a couple of close friends who were also in Chile when I studied abroad. But when I live in Spain and Japan I was completely independent. Spain, in particular, I went over, had no place to live, all I had was the place where I was going to be working. So I completely had to find a place to live. Totally learned a new neighborhood, a new city. Japan, my company provided me a place to live but I didn’t really get a choice on where that place was going to be. So, you know, most of my trips have been completely independent. Which is why I try to focus on tips to encourage people to be as independent as possible.

Monica:    Thank you. And number 4?

Nick:        OK, number 4 I think is really, really important. But if you’re travelling for study, consider how you are going to get materials in an accessible format. This is something I really, really stress because I’ve now studied abroad twice in two different contexts. So when I lived in Chile it was part of a study abroad program. And one year that I was in Japan was also part of a university program. And in both countries I had to take different approaches to getting accessible materials. When I was in Chile they did not really have an infrastructure set up for getting materials put into an accessible format. So I actually had to mail my textbooks back to the United States and ask my home university if they could please scan them and put them on to a computer disk. Well at the time they put them onto a CD and then mailed it to me. Nowadays you can simply put it on a Dropbox or Google drive or whatever it happens to be. But, you know, the university in Chile just wasn’t set up for accessibility.

And in Japan I had to negotiate it with the university to explain to them how to make materials accessible. And that was something they were really frightened by in the sense that they had never done that before. So they needed me to be able to explain to them how to make a book accessible. So it’s just important to consider that ahead of time. We’re very lucky here in the US that we have some many universities that work to make materials accessible. But not every country has reached that level of accessibility.

Monica:    Yes, that’s good. And it’s good that you have to prepare ahead of time, rather than just assuming. And what type of time frame, let’s say, if you’re getting ready to go on an exchange program, do you want your home university here in the US to kind of make sure that they are coordinating that, or do you advise or suggest that you’re in direct contact with the host university to make sure that it’s all accessible?

Nick:         I think it’s always good to be in direct contact, but if the home university is possibly more familiar with the university abroad they can help set that up, but I think it’s always important to be in direct contact because who knows better than you what you need, so it’s always better if you can communicate that directly.

Monica:    Perfect. Then number 3?

Nick:        Number 3. What does your host culture think about blindness? Is it a curse, is it a misfortune, is it something totally natural? This was something really important, especially the first time I studied abroad, confronting a different culture’s view towards disability. Here in the US, again we’re fairly lucky we live in a culture that is more or less accepting of disabilities. Yes, we do run across discrimination still, but much less than you run into in countries where disabilities are closeted away.

So that was something I was not necessarily prepared to deal with when I first moved to Chile. I just wasn’t expecting it. So it’s something to keep in mind and prepare yourself mentally, that your host culture might not treat you the same as your home culture does.

Monica:    For instance what did you experience in Chile, that kind of took you by surprise.

Nick:        Yeah, I think in Chile what really surprised me was people were very hands on with me, in the sense that when I was walking down the road independently people, without saying anything, would just approach me and grab ahold of me. And I think in the US we’re pretty hands off; we’re not a very touchy culture. And in Chile people didn’t think twice about just grabbing ahold of you when they thought you needed to be directed. And I found that very shocking, to have people touch me so frequently.

Monica:    I’m just going to make a plug, because we’re going to do another episode with you, which is titled “Preparing for a Reaction,” because this subject is, I think, you know we don’t think about, we don’t prepare, so then it can be pretty jolting whenever you arrive to it.

Nick:        Yes, and that episode will get into a little bit more of the sort of things to prepare for, and how to deal with the different reactions that people will have.

Monica:    Exactly, so yes, I’m excited that we can talk more about that subject. And number 2.

Nick:        Number 2. You can potentially look up organizations for the blinds in the host country where you’re going to be. This is not something that I have done very often, but I have met other visually impaired people who have done so. A lot of countries, I know Spain has a very well-established organization for the blind, Japan has smaller groups for the blind in different cities, Chile, too, I know Chile had a couple of organizations for the blind. It’s something that if you are comfortable doing so it can be a great resource. You can even make friends that way. People can inform you as to some of the materials that are available to you, so it can be a great resource to you.

Monica:    And I just want to add something to that. Because once you look at those local organizations I think it is important to make sure they do provide services to non-local Americans. We’ve heard from different students that they don’t; they only work with their local citizens and they don’t provide any type of support for foreigners, or international students, or anything.

Nick:        Right, right. And I think it is also important to how you approach them. If you approach them directly looking for services they are not; in my experience in Spain is if you approach them looking for services they weren’t really likely, but if you approach them more as “Hey I’m just a blind person here looking to learn more about your organization,” they were a lot more open. So, you know, it depends a lot in how you approach them. But you know the one thing you have to consider is, they’re going to oftentimes possibly force their beliefs on to you as well so that is something to also keep in mind.

Monica:    And number 1, in no particular order.

Nick:        And number 1, in no particular order *[speech is not clear here* 19:48ff]. Consider investigating the size and shape of the money. Get familiar with the local currency. Just because it is always good, the more confident you can be in dealing with things like money, paying for a bill at a restaurant, things like that, it is just one more aspect of independence. You know, if you are quickly able to identify the bills of like yen in Japan, how the 5000 is bigger than the 1000, things like that. If you can quickly sort through your wallet and find that money it is just going to make your life smoother and you won’t have to rely on other people to identify the money.

Monica:    For sure. Great. Good, good, good. Nick, I totally appreciate this. This is really informative, very helpful, and adds many different tips that people don’t usually think about. So I appreciate that. And for our last question, our podcast is Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad. I want to leave with your ripple effect message for message for anybody listening and for them to share with others.

Nick:        I’m going to say what I’ve said in the past to other people. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t study abroad or that you can’t travel abroad. You are the person who knows best what you need, and it’s up to you to figure out what you need in order to be able to study abroad, but it’s totally possible. You know it is something that of us can do and all of us have the right to do, and all of us should have the privilege to do. It is up to us individually to figure out the best strategy to get us there to get us to the point where we can study abroad.

Monica:    Yes, so I really want to thank you for this. It is something that you’ve already been doing, it’s something that you’re about to continue to do. You’re about to begin your work in Ecuador and if you don’t mind letting us know who your employer is and what job you’re going to do, because it is really exciting and I know it is something you’ve worked really hard for.

Nick:        Sure. I’m actually going to be working for the Ministry of Knowledge and Human Talent. But I’ll be working for the Ministry as an advisor on inclusive education.

Monica:    Perfect. Yes. Good luck and congratulations. I think it is really exciting and I think you’re going to do great because this is exactly what you’ve worked towards.

Nick:        Well thank you very much. And thank you for putting together podcasts like this that are informational.

Monica:    Thank you for your time and I hope everybody looks forward to the second episode, Preparing for a Reaction. I’m Monica Malhotra, your host for Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad. Thank you for listening and make sure to visit us as to learn more about Mobility International USA and our mission to advance disability rights and leadership globally.