Into Unknown Territory

Kevin Cosgrove sits by a window overlooking a body of water
Through his "high-strength lens," Kevin Cosgrove recounts the struggles and successes of navigating Australia independently, plus his encounters with the local blind community, cheeky surf instructors, and Aussie slang along the way.

Given that I have a hard enough time locating my own shoes, I'm not quite sure how I convinced the Study Abroad offices to drop me off halfway around the world to study in Melbourne, Australia. Nonetheless, it turned out to be a great decision, so, as an Aussie might say, "Good on them for that."

I have a severe visual impairment and I rely on adaptive devices to aid me with work, school and travel. I am an independent traveler, but I had spent my entire life – including my collegiate studies at DePaul University - in the familiar comfort of the Chicago-land area. Living independently is not a foreign concept to me, but I have always had a well-tested network of support systems at my fingertips.

This made my ambition to study at Monash University in Australia seem like more of a venture into unknown territory, both literally and figuratively. Despite that, I still had a nagging fixation with getting out of the boring old U.S.A. and going really far way. Suffice it to say, Australia more than satisfied that criterion of distance, and it also offered a beautiful and fascinating backdrop for learning and exploring.

During my time abroad, I had many personal triumphs: bringing myself to go skydiving, bungee jumping, and surfing (my surfing instructor gave me the patronizing nickname of “Kelly Slater”). I also traveled to Sydney, Darwin, New Zealand, and an Aboriginal community called Yuendumu, where I volunteered at an art center.

However, I will focus my writing primarily on issues concerning disability and offer my perspective through the lens of someone with a visual disability. I guess such a lens would have to be a high-strength corrective magnifying lens, wouldn't it?

In preparation for the trip, I consulted DePaul's Disability Services office for recommendations. They loaned me a USB drive with a computer magnifying program called ZoomText, along with a portable electronic enlarging screen to magnify quick reading references on the go. It's basically a handy blind academic survival kit.

Beyond that, the most helpful resource for tips and further support at that time came from Monash's international exchange coordinators and the on-campus Disability Liaison Unit (DLU) - I love that name! This office put me in touch with other useful organizations and gave me additional peace of mind. Nonetheless, I still had no real assured sense of what to expect.

Since DePaul described the Melbourne program as an exciting stay in an "urban metropolis," I found myself slightly taken aback when I arrived at the airport in Melbourne and a shuttle van dropped me off about 45 minutes outside of the city in the decidedly suburban surroundings of a place called Clayton. It seemed to have more parking lots than shops in my immediate vicinity.

Although I later learned to appreciate the quirks of Clayton, my first week consisted of repeatedly getting lost while trying to find my way back to my dorm and wandering around streets with constant speeding cars and seldom a storefront or restaurant.

By the way, traffic lights in Melbourne are great for blind people because they make a chirping sound to signal green lights, but the light will only change if you press a button on the light-post. Unfortunately I didn't realize I needed to push a button until much later in my stay, so I did a lot of extended waiting and crossing the street in a panic when it sounded like traffic had settled for a while.

This early period was frustrating. The problem was that I hadn't yet established any solid relationships with fellow students and any support I could receive would have to come from Monash's faculty. But finding the faculty would require finding a particular office on campus and, at that time, even finding my way from my dorm complex to the proper campus area seemed like a starry-eyed pipe dream.

Luckily, I was able to connect with some other fellow students who showed me around for the orientation week. This gave me a better basic understanding of the campus layout, but I still had trouble maneuvering through the winding pavement and seemingly randomly placed arrangement of buildings that appeared to take more inspiration from a Candyland board game than a logical grid pattern.

I can still remember leaving a meeting with my study abroad coordinator from DePaul who came with the group for the first week. I had admitted to her that I couldn't find my way back to my dorm without assistance. Concerned, she asked, "What do you usually do in these situations?" I didn't know what to tell her. I just thought to myself, "I don't know, I'm not usually in Australia for five months."

Slowly, I started to gain a degree of competency with navigating my nearby surroundings through traveling with my peers and the directions of passers-by as I wandered around taking unintentionally convoluted routes to various destinations.

Once I got my inner-campus traveling sorted, I was able to form a connection with the DLU, who tipped me onto a resource room in the library with a CCTV enlarger and a computer with adaptive software. They also allowed me extended time on exams and informed my professors about my specified needs. These all turned out to be vital factors in my success.

DLU also put me in contact with Guide Dogs Victoria (GDV) who were particularly helpful. It is a non-for-profit organization that offers free orientation and mobility training along with other services for people with visual disabilities living in the state of Victoria. GDV gave me much needed orientation to trickier places to find on campus. They also provided me with extensive acclimation to mass transit, which gave me routes into the city and to off-campus shopping clusters.

GDV put together a fantastic chocolate-themed scavenger hunt for similarly-aged visually impaired people that toured through lots of high-quality chocolate shops in Melbourne's Central Business District.

This was fun in its own right, but it also gave me an opportunity to meet other blind people in the community. That's something really valuable when you can often be made to feel like an anomaly among your sighted peers.

I had a really positive experience with GDV, although unfortunately, I wasn't able to receive services from them until nearly two months into my stay due to a lengthy waiting list. By way of advice, I would suggest contacting them as soon possible if you know you'll be staying in the area and you need their assistance. My struggles during the first few weeks in Melbourne could have been significantly reduced if I'd been able to receive orientation training immediately following my arrival.

Another helpful reference came from a friend I made through Monash's student mentor program for international students. We would meet up with other people in the program on a regular basis and my mentor, who was a Melbourne native, also showed me around some of the less publicized nooks of the city. He, along with the many other friendships I formed, cemented my trip as a fulfilling and multidimensional life experience rather than a strictly academic endeavor. This is not to say that my academic pursuits were not also rewarding and unique – they were. But institutional academics are only a portion of what makes a study abroad program worthwhile.

Here's one more piece of idiosyncratic information that should help anyone with a visual impairment visiting Australia: the word "blind" in Aussie vernacular means that you are really belligerently drunk. I ran into several misunderstandings with that one as I tried to explain to bouncers why I couldn't maintain eye contact.

My time in Australia still ranks highly as an important period of my life. I established that independent long-distance travel for an extended time is well within my grasp and my disability is more of an inconvenience than a barricade in most instances. However, in the absence of barricades, I sometimes found hurdles over which I had to jump, as my disability was often treated as an unfamiliar entity. I was fortunate to study in a city that consistently receives exceptional marks for livability with all of its resources and conveniences. But in a different setting I could have had a far tougher time.

There's no easy way to get around inconsistent levels of support and accessibility in disparate environments around the world. However, within the context of my limited experience, I have found that world travel and learning from international culture is worth the intensified difficulties. Whether it's getting a piece of equipment loaned to you or bringing an assistant along, there are usually creative ways to adapt. So, to absurdly over-stretch my initial hurdle metaphor, I'd encourage individuals and institutions to work towards turning those metaphorical hurdles into proverbial wheelchair-accessible ramps.

Author: 

Kevin Cosgrove