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.
Monica: One of the biggest reason other people travel to different countries is to experience how, what, and why other countries do what they do. Sometimes we agree with it, sometimes we come away with greater understandings, and sometimes we just disagree but can still come away and appreciate what we learned about ourselves through all those experiences.
Nick Hoekstra, has participated in many international exchange programs, from Chile all the way to Japan and is now getting ready for a job in Ecuador.
Needless to say, he has experienced many different cultures and sees how going abroad can change ones perspective on their own blindness and why one should prepare for a reaction.
He says, “The attention from locals may make you feel paranoid or nervous about going out on your own. Your blindness, though a common enough thing in the US, may turn into the most distinguishing characteristic about you in another country.”
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Monica: Hi Nick, how are you?
Nick: Good, how are you?
Monica: Thank you for being part of a second episode with us. Thank you for the first one, which was Ten Tips to Help Prepare Anyone Who is Blind or has Low Vision on Going Abroad. It was very helpful and one of those pieces that you mentioned was kind of understanding what your host culture thinks about blindness.
Nick: Yes, I think this is a really important topic because we talk a lot about culture shock but I think that when you are talking about people with disabilities there is an aspect of the culture shock that isn’t necessarily considered. And that is something that we need to prepare ourselves for because we are viewed differently in different cultures. When your average study abroad officer is preparing you to think about culture shock, they don’t necessarily think about the added difficulties or challenges or differences when dealing with people with disabilities. So I think this is a really important topic.
Monica: Yes, and when you haven’t actually reflected on the subject before, and you arrive to the new country, experiencing something that may initially offend you or feel like discrimination, can be pretty frustrating and may have you doubt your purpose in the program. And there are actually so many benefits about going abroad, so stopping and thinking about how you’ll react in these situations is key to successfully staying in the program.
Nick: And it is funny, because now I look back on these stories and they kind of make me laugh, but at the time they were not at all funny to me. The first time I studied abroad was to Chile and I can tell you case and point one of the very specific things that happened when I was in Chile was I was trying to deal with the local university getting some materials scanned onto the computer so that I could then read them with my voice synthesizer. And while I was doing this the office that dealt with this at the university was so slow that I was going to be something like four or five weeks behind in materials.
I had asked them if it is going to be four or five weeks behind, do you think you could just skip the first four or five weeks of content and just start with the fifth week’s worth of material so at least I could be up to date, be at the same place with the rest of the class when that material was ready? And the reaction of the university; I shouldn’t say the university, the reaction of this person in particular was to say, “Oh you blind people! You are always so demanding.” They said this and they kind of laughed and they looked at a friend that I was with. [Monica, sotto voice: Oh wow!] And I was absolutely speechless, because I’m thinking, ‘you blind people are so demanding.’ I was not at all demanding; I was just trying to make their lives easier. And this was a service that was being offered to me. Just that for an example was a very, I guess you would say pejorative, very, you know, treating me . . . like I was a child.
That was just very shocking to me. But, you know, there were other things as far as how people treat you when you are walking around on the streets and things like that. But the other situation that was really, really kind of shocking and also very funny now, was when I moved to Japan my employer; when I moved to Japan I was working as an English teacher and my employer had politely asked me to never leave my apartment alone, because they just felt as if it would be too much of a risk and they also took away my stove so that I could not cook in my apartment because they were afraid I would burn the house down.
And you are talking about two hugely important things for independence of living; your ability to cook your own food and your ability just to get out and lead a life. Basically it felt like I was in prison with work release. I could go to my job every day but apart from that they just wanted me to stay quiet and stay at home.
Monica: And of course everyone’s experiences are different based on what country they visit and who they interact with. And once we initially feel offended by someone’s behavior we are actually comparing to behaviors that we’re more used to. But it seems as we dig deeper we can generally find a different meaning compared to our initial assumption. So I want to hear what were some of the things you learned about the various countries you lived in.
Nick: So, what I really learned is that in a lot of these cultures their reactions and their attitudes, and I’m going to speak specifically towards blindness, being that I’m blind and that’s the topic that I best understand. A lot of times their reactions stem from the fact that visually impaired people are just not common, or commonly seen in everyday society. In Japan oftentimes students with disabilities, blind students, are educated in separate schools. They are very isolated from the general society. Even in later life as far as work goes, they are very isolated in the jobs that they have. They become massage therapists or musicians. You know, they are seen in certain places but they are just not expected to be seen out walking around in day to day life. So, people just don’t have a context for how to deal with people with disabilities.
It is something that, it is important to understand that in a lot of cases it is not a reflection that the society is specifically discriminating against you because of your disability, it is more that they just don’t understand your disability. So, you know, in Japan when I would go out to walk around, people would be overly helpful only because they didn’t know what to expect. They had not had that experience of seeing a visually impaired person out walking around, crossing streets independently, taking the bus independently. So for them they just had no basis for understanding. That is important to understand, and it is important not to take it personally too. It is not a personal thing; it is a culture that wants to protect you, but doesn’t understand the right way to go about doing it.
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: So based on your personal experience, because that’s not how your situations in Chile or Japan panned out to be, you cooked on your own, you went out on your own, eventually, and then even in Japan working with the programs to kind of get different accommodations. How did you change that and what was the reaction when people in the community started to learn more from a blind person, different from what they were used to seeing or not even seeing at all?
Nick: Sure. It’s different from country to country and from context to context. And there is no one way to go about doing this. I’d say both in Chile and Japan it was a matter of slowly looking at the culture looking at my situation and finding the ways that I could start to fight against their way of thinking and so to give you an example, in Japan, I had a neighbor who was also a foreigner. My neighbor was from the UK and my neighbor actually helped me get a stove into my apartment in the evening so that I could prepare food. My neighbor he was quite the foodie; he loved to cook and he thought that it was such a crime that they had denied me a stove. So he helped me set up a stove. And cooking was such a huge part of my life; I love to cook, so for me not having access to a stove was pretty devastating.
But, you know, I got a stove, thanks to the help of my neighbor. He also walked the path with me from my home to my work a couple of times because I wanted to make sure I knew how to walk to work, you know, perfectly, that there would be no mistake. And it even reflects how much the society impacted me that I was even nervous about walking to my work. My work in Japan was only about five blocks away from my apartment, which was nothing to me. I go out and walk miles at a time because I love to get and walk around, I love to be independent. But the society had kind of made me so cautious that even this five block walk to work I was second-guessing myself. But the same neighbor walked it with me a couple times, made sure I knew it. And what I started to do was, my work each day would send somebody to pick me up to bring me to the school where I was to be working. And what I finally did was wake up early in the morning and just walk to work before someone had been sent to pick me up.
Monica: [interjects:] You beat them to it.
Nick: Yeah, I beat them to it. The first time this happened the vice principal of the school was just shocked. He came out and he looked at me, “How did you get here?” And I said, “Well you know, I couldn’t sleep well last night, and woke up early, so I thought I’ll just come to work early.” Because that is one thing that the Japanese love: the earlier you get to work just shows that you’re more dedicated. So in a sense it was playing a little bit with their mentality of dedication to work. You know I did this once and I kept doing it and it was that kind of subtle, non-verbal way of telling them, “look, I’m going to keep coming in this way, no matter what.” And that’s kind of the way you deal with things a little bit in Japan. It was a roundabout way of dealing with the problem. But as I demonstrated to them that I could get to work on my own, and of course they started to see me bring my lunch every day that had been cooked at home obviously. There were little things like this. I’d say in this case there were two ways that I combatted the, for lack of a better word, let’s use the word discrimination, because in the end that is what it is that we’re dealing with, but I relied upon people I could trust, Dean, my neighbor, and I also worked little by little to prove the people around me that I could lead an independent life, that I could cook, that I could walk to school, things like that.
You know, finally I had to take it up and up the hierarchy, first convincing the vice principal of my school that I could walk to school, then going to the school board that was ultimately my employer, convincing them that I could own and stove and could walk to work. And you know it was a slow battle that took 3-4 months before I finally had the full independence of the other people, the other foreigners who were working in Japan. I just had to prove to them little by little. It was frustrating but really it doesn’t do any good to overreact, to get angry. That’s the one thing you know your gut instinct in some of these situations is to get angry and show that to people. But in societies that just don’t understand visual impairment or people who are blind, getting angry kind of makes you look worse. It doesn’t make you look like any more respectable, doesn’t make you look any more independent, it just makes you look more childish. You just got to kind of keep your cool and combat in the little ways that you can prove to people that you are capable of everything that everyone else is capable of.
Monica: It’s great that you knew what was important for you to fully participate in a program and what you needed to do to make that happen. It seems you were your best advocate and made sure that you could still be independent by cooking and walking on your own, for instance. And all at the same time and letting others start to see people who are blind from a different lens. And letting them see what you can do, rather than focusing on their assumptions of what blind people can’t do.
Nick: I started to look more and more at the situation in that aspect; that I was educating the people around me. And, you know, if we educate three people in our lives then we’ve done something to benefit the world. In Japan, you know, the entire community where I lived really started to change the way that they thought about me and about people with disabilities in general. And I had a lot of positive reactions after a couple of years. Even one of the teachers that I worked with came up to me the very last day that I was working and said, “You know when I first started working with you I really questioned what a blind person could do. Now, two years later, it has been so valuable to work with you,” and so forth. You really do start to change the way people view disability. And, unfortunately, that is the burden and the privilege that we have as peoples with disabilities. [*gap/glitch in recording*] Who will look at us and people will make judgements. So it is up to us to leave a positive example in our wake.
Monica: So kind of going based our last discussion, what tips do you have for anyone who has a disability that is getting ready to go abroad and the value for preparing for a reaction?
Nick: So, again, I think the most important way to prepare is just to realize that this is going to happen. As best as you can you can research views that different cultures have on disability. I know while I was in Japan, also in Spain, you can even go on Google do searches on visual impairments in those countries and you can find articles written by people who have disabilities within the country. That can give you a perspective as to the way the culture views your disability. But more than anything it is important for you to understand that you may come up against challenges and reactions that are not typical from your home country. So, I mean I don’t know of a better way to prepare than just to be cognizant of those reactions. I know when I left, when I first studied abroad to Chile I don’t think I had ever considered my visual impairment as a part of me until I got to Chile and it was something that other people talked about. You know, people would ask me questions about my blindness constantly.
That was not something that I was used to here in the United States. So, it really brought to the forefront of my mind that I am a person with a disability, that’s not something I had really been so aware of until I studied abroad. And I’ve had a disability for most of my life. So, I mean for me it was something quite natural. But then when I went abroad it became the biggest topic of conversation. So another thing that is really important to be aware of is it will be such an important part of conversation, find ways to change the conversation. You’re going to get bored if the only thing that people want to talk about is your blindness, so find ways to change that conversation. And find other things that you want to talk about. It’s important to inform people but it’s also important that you don’t go crazy.
Monica: Yeah. And they get to know other sides of you.
Nick: And they get to know other sides of you. Yes. Because really in the end disability is in some ways the smallest part of us. It is just one more adjective.
Monica: Well, Nick, thank you for sharing your reflections on how ones perceptions of their blindness can be affected in a cultural context; going to different places when you are not used to thinking about it here in the US, your day to day lives. And now, Nick, I want to leave with your ripple effect message for our listeners and for the listeners to be able to share with others about studying abroad and kind of the impact it has on you and your future.
Nick: OK, so I’m going to go back to a little bit of what I said earlier, but I think the most important message that I can really pass along is that as a person with a disability when you study abroad you are studying abroad you are going to be a representative of all peoples with disabilities, whether or not you like it. You are going to be an image of that disability for your host culture. So be aware of that and just realize that your reactions to people and how you treat people is going to leave a mark on how people think about peoples with disabilities. So if you can leave a positive impact on people, you know that is going benefit everyone else who comes after you.
Monica: Thank you, Nick. This has been really, really helpful, and I’m sure all our listeners will think the same.
Nick: Alright. Well, thank you again for having me on the podcast. And for putting together these are really, really important topics that you are approaching here.
Monica: I very happy that you are being part of it for two episodes, so I hope our listeners will hear both episodes from you from the Top 10 Tactile Tips for Navigating Abroad and Preparing for a Reaction. Thank you Nick.
Nick: 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 as miusa.org to learn more about Mobility International USA and our mission to advance disability rights and leadership globally.