Accessing U.S. Studies to Advance Disability Rights in Thailand

Chart in graduation regalia
To increase opportunities for the blind community in Thailand, Surachart Ratchajanda, a.k.a. Chart, had to start with accessing opportunities for himself first.

Chart traveled to the United States from Thailand to get a Master's Degree in International Public Policy and Management from the University of Southern California (USC) with the support of the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships Program (IFP). At the time, he just wanted to get the top-notch education that the American system would open up for him. Just what he would do with that master’s degree would come later.

Having grown up as a blind man in a small town about three hours from Bangkok, Chart knew what it was like to live in a place with limited resources.

"People with disabilities in Thailand mostly live in rural area, lack higher education, facilities and accommodations, welfare, and [are] unemployed and discriminated."

That was when he decided that he wanted to do something to make a difference in the disability community in Thailand, but at that time he didn't know exactly what. He knew of friends who were IFP alumni, all exceptional individuals from marginalized backgrounds pursuing higher degrees in the United States.

The IFP, which was started in 2001 and concluded in 2013, supported more than 4300 social changemakers from vulnerable populations around the world to pursue advanced studies. This intrigued Chart, who suspected that there might be more opportunities and better services for students in the United States. Also, the values of the fellowship were a perfect match for Chart who believes that by developing ourselves professionally and personally, we can also develop our communities. 

He got to work, doing research about American culture and customs, and submitting his application for the IFP. He was accepted to be part of the eighth IFP cohort of the program, and he began his studies at the University of Southern California.

"There are many benefits to study in the States including learning a new environment, gaining confidence, independence, life skills, improving English language, having more friends and connections, bright future, good facilities and accommodations for people with disabilities.

Despite trepidation from his family and community that he would not be able to manage on his own, his acceptance into the program was received with strong support. 

Before arriving to the United States, the IFP made sure that the fellows made it through all the necessary preparations. IFP offered all fellows a pre-academic English course for 6 months in order to prepare for the TOEFL exam and their graduate program. IFP also offered support with the visa process and offered a full scholarship. 

When he arrived to the United States, Chart was plunged into an individualistic culture, far away from his family, where he needed to take care of himself. He needed to get around on his own, clean his own apartment, and prepare his own food. Nevertheless, he learned how to do all these things with the help of his new community.

When it came to his classes, he was also well supported. The Disability Services on his campus provided him extra time on tests, orientation and mobility lessons to learn how to get around independently, and the textbooks for his classes in an accessible digitalized format. They also made sure that he had note-takers for his classes, as well as a private place to take exams without distractions.

"International students, especially students with disabilities, should take advantage of these opportunities in order to have bright future, not only for their lives but also for their communities and countries."

Chart has dedicated himself to working with initiatives that will bring some of those opportunities and resources to Thailand. After spending a few years working at the Benyalai Library, digitalizing content for blind Thai people, he has moved on to start his own initiative to bring accessible public transit service to Thailand.