When I arrived at Dubai International Airport, I was struck by how cosmopolitan and busy it was, despite the very early morning hour. The women in the airport were covered from head to toe in flowing black robes, and I could see the dark eyes of only a few. Among some of the younger women I encountered, however, I noticed hints of “Western wear” under their traditional dress, including jeans and designer handbags.
After earning a college degree in Japanese and Chinese, taking seven trips to China to work and study, and twelve trips to Japan and Korea to teach English, one might consider me an expert, but I don’t feel like one.
Sarah Funes has many opportunities in her life to travel and learn. When she was 19, Sarah collaborated with a group of ten Americans and thirteen Syrians in an effort to create the first disabled Muslim super hero for Liquid Comics. This Youth Ability Summit took place in Syria and was funded and organized by the Open Hands Initiative and the Victor Pineda Foundation.
When David Berube stood in front of a classroom of twenty Thai students and asked if they knew anyone who had HIV or AIDS, not a single hand went up. He felt a rush of fear when Cee, his Thai translator, told the children that Berube had been HIV+ for ten years. “What was going to happen?” Berube wondered. “Were they going to be afraid of getting close to me now that they knew?” All eyes were on him, and for a moment, the room was silent.
I can confidently say that the largest barrier that inhibits people with disabilities from traveling abroad is attitude. In preparation for going abroad, many travelers with disabilities worry and are often overwhelmed by the perceived physical barriers associated with disability, whether it be lack of ramps, lack of Brailled signage, lack of accessible public transport, or communication barriers to getting around.
As a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, going to the bathroom is one topic that is foremost on my mind when I’m traveling. If I learn nothing else in the native language of where I travel, I always learn:”Where’s the bathroom?” “Ayna Al Hammam?” “¿Dónde está el baño?” “Baatroom snaan kaksha kahaan cha?” “Ble mae`r ty bach?”, “où sont les toilettes?”, “Wo ist die Toilette, bitte?” When all else fails, I am the master of universal bathroom signs and the international potty dance.
When I first discussed going abroad with my family and friends, their first comment was: “That’s wonderful, but how are you going to travel alone in a wheelchair, in a power wheelchair no less?” When I added that my destination was not Canada or Europe, but rather a developing country in South America, this seemed to further solidify their view that it would be impossible for me to travel in a power wheelchair.
Whether it’s working within the coffee fields of Costa Rica or teaching English to children in Nepal, volunteers with disabilities have made their presence known as contributory global citizens. It could be said that volunteers with disabilities bring an additional contribution to the international communities where they volunteer, and this is the understanding of ‘inter-dependence’.
Contrary to what many may think, asking for assistance or accommodation when volunteering abroad as a disabled person may positively contribute to the volunteer experience.
Although I was born in a small, rural town in southwestern Japan, growing up I had an interest in foreign affairs. However, my family could not imagine that their son could travel outside of Japan.
MIUSA: How did you become interested in learning English?
Shuhei: When I was a high school student in Japan, I was very interested in English because I love chatting. I felt that if I could speak English, I would be able to talk with more people.
What drew you to studying at a community college in Hawaii?
I liked how the U.S. university is run. A lot more interactive and the professors actually worked in the field that they are teaching about – they are not just academics that want to do research.
I used the disability services in England and the U.S. as well. Americans are more openly emotional and there’s a lot more talking about feelings, which the English don’t do.
A Deaf student from Russia, Tatiana experienced the best of both worlds by attending two schools during her Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) year in the United States.
She attended the Delaware School for the Deaf (DSD) for the first five months of her exchange program while taking pre-calculus at Christiana High School, a mainstream public high school. After five months attending DSD, she transitioned to Christiana full time.
Eight years makes a world of difference. Dr. Mona Al-Sawwaf, head of the Department of Psychiatry at the King Fahd General Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, traveled as a U.S. Department of State-sponsored Humphrey Fellow to the United States to enhance professional networks and to meet colleagues in her field at top university hospitals – eight years after surviving a car accident and healing from multiple fractures in her legs.
MIUSA: How did you become interested in international exchange?
Shannon: I always loved traveling around the United States with my family, but I decided that I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and travel abroad. Before starting college, I had volunteered in Costa Rica for three weeks and was so moved by the experience that as soon as I got back, I was already thinking of where to go next!
You then joined a study abroad program in South Africa. What was unique about this program that made you want to participate?
For Jagoda Risteska, the true measure of success is “to enrich someone else’s life in a way that you never remain the same.” From that perspective, the disability advocate reflected that her U.S. fellowship has been very successful.