In Nigeria, my culture places so much emphasis on the physical beauty of girls and women. As a polio survivor, I know that this notion causes most women and girls with disabilities to perceive their bodies as being unattractive and unacceptable. In turn, women and girls with disabilities treat their bodies with less value, which of course has serious implications for their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Jeanette Lee has been a part of the Disability Rights Movement since its inception. Though she describes herself as shy, Jeanette’s strong voice as an activist has aided in creating a society in Australia that is constantly becoming more accessible.
During her studies in Melbourne, Jeanette was told by one of her mentors that ‘the world is not made for wheelchairs,’ and that she was not ‘being realistic’ with her situation. From this disappointment in leadership grew a greater desire for justice in the world.
After a five hour ride in a clunky van over dirt roads, Jake Robinson and his fellow study abroad students arrived in the remote, densely forested interior of Ghana to visit a medical clinic. After lunch, the local host led the group along a dirt path – at first surrounded by children excited by Jake’s red wheelchair, then past a goat in someone’s living room, and deeper into the jungle for a good distance. Just when Jake was thinking they must be getting close, he learned his adventure was not soon to end.
To understand where he was headed, one must start nine months earlier. For Jake, like other American students with mobility disabilities, the default message he had received during college was: “Go to class, pass your courses, get your degree, and then move on. It’s easier to just not study abroad.” But Jake is different. He is not the kind of person to follow the standard path – he is adventurous and, as an undergraduate, he wanted to go places.
Tyler Clark’s interest peaked when he visited Valparaiso University in Indiana for the first time, and the campus tour guide mentioned the university’s study abroad programs. “Would I be able to study abroad?” he asked the study abroad office that day to which the reply came, “Well, when would you like to?” A year after enrolling in Valparaiso, Tyler, who has cerebral palsy, changed his major to Spanish in hopes of becoming an international interpreter. Studying abroad would let him know whether or not he enjoyed living abroad and also if he could improve his language skills.
What if your major is International Studies or your degree requires you to take classes overseas? How can you study abroad during your college experience, and pay for your personal assistant while traveling? These questions were always lingering in the background waiting to be answered for Xuan Troung, a student at North Carolina State University who has osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. To find the answers, she turned to her Vocational Rehabilitation counselor.
When Alahna Keil, who has cerebral palsy, enrolled in Luther College in Iowa, located an hour away from her home in Wisconsin, the idea of studying abroad seemed far from her mind. She was apprehensive about the possibility of study abroad both for academic and physical reasons. Then something changed. She learned of 3-week programs for the January term break. The length seemed manageable, the four academic credits useful, and the faculty supportive – it ended up being a perfect opportunity. By her sophomore year, Alahna was on her way to China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
From her host community of Spokane, Washington, Polina beams as she recalls the highlights of her academic year on the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program.
“I’m fully enjoying my time here! I have everything I need: a great host family, people who care about me and have been supporting me from the very first day I met them, a school with good teachers, and new friends.”
But like many high school students who consider studying abroad, Polina wasn’t always so sure her experience would be a positive one.
In a village five hours outside of Nairobi, Kenya, with no electricity or running water, Tara Wickey, who has muscular dystrophy, was studying abroad for her graduate degree in Public Service Management at DePaul University. While there, Tara observed the ways in which Kenyans are responding to the HIV/AIDS epidemic at the government and non-governmental levels. “It was difficult and quite a culture shock. It made me appreciate and acknowledge all the developed world comforts I had come to take advantage of.”
Whether trekking through dense jungles or scaling tall temples, traversing over tough terrain is sometimes necessary on our international adventures. Scroll through our photo slideshow to see how other intrepid travelers with mobility disabilities have forged ahead on their international paths - by tractor, by piggyback, and even by yak!
"I got so tired of people crying for me every time I ventured onto the streets of Albania in my wheelchair that I decided it would be better to just stay home. I was only twenty-five when I was in a terrible car accident that caused irreparable damage to my spinal cord. As a result, I am now a paraplegic and a wheelchair user.
Jessica Chesbro first learned about the Foreign Service while she was living in a bamboo hut in a small farming village in the Philippines. At the time, she was serving in the Peace Corps and working with abused children.
“The Peace Corps experience was life-changing. I learned so much about life there, and really strengthened my passion both for travel and for helping people.”
It was also life-changing because it led to her current career with the Foreign Service.
How do you describe a partnership that not only achieves its goals, but transforms the entire way in which each partner works? MIUSA's Empower Partnerships program simply calls it, “Team Macedonia.” With support from the U.S. Department of State, MIUSA brought together organizations from around the world for a new style of collaborative program designed to advance disability rights.
Kimberly Tissot, Executive Director of Able South Carolina, heard the determination in the voices of her partners in the Dominican Republic: “We need to know how it is possible for you to be independent in the U.S., and how to make those changes here.”
With information and an open mind, there are many ways to successfully problem solve transportation issues in any country. Depending on where someone will be living, transportation can vary dramatically. In big cities and even small towns in many countries, taxis, buses and public transport will be wheelchair accessible. Some basic questions about where a participant will be, what is common in that area, and what alternatives exist will help you think through the transportation options.
The living situation for an exchange participant is not just a place to stay, but a way to learn about family, culture and language. Some participants will be better suited to living in a dormitory, while others will thrive in a homestay family. In either case, what's key is finding a place and people who will welcome a participant with a disability into many aspects of life in the new country.