Megan Smith began her involvement with MIUSA when she was just 15. “Staff helped advise me on going abroad on a volunteer program in Costa Rica and Peru,” says Megan, who is a power wheelchair user. “Then, while at university, I spoke at MIUSA conferences and wrote some pieces about my international experiences.” Now, after three years working in the MIUSA office and leading MIUSA leadership exchanges, Megan will head to her next big adventure at the year's end.
Our work at MIUSA brings people together to activate ideas, plans of action, and partnerships that expand beyond the life-time of the program or project. There’s a global community collectively fighting against poverty, illiteracy, discrimination, violence, and unemployment. People connected with MIUSA are an important part of this community, and you never know where you’ll find us.
How do short term international exchanges advance equal rights for people with disabilities? It starts with an individual taking action.
For Lizzie Kiama, a disabled activist from Kenya, an afternoon spent on a YMCA basketball court in Oregon, USA, gave rise to a new idea. “This was when my dream for Women & Wheels was born,” says Kiama who has a physical disability. “I had the opportunity to take part in Wheelchair Rugby, and I knew I had to play the sport again.”
Talking through her concerns with others helped study abroad student Amanda let go of her anxieties over the summer she spent in Florence, Italy.
Studying or volunteering abroad can open not just new adventures and cultures to you, but lessons that give you new perspectives even after returning home. Appreciating the moment. Accepting new ways of doing things. Finding your personal drive or independence. These are all what exchange alumni living with mental health conditions say are ways they grew while abroad.
Get everything you need in place so you can start your adventure right as soon as you land. This includes finding solutions to inaccessible places, learning new strategies, and preparing for differences.
The time put in upfront to rethink what makes a program inclusive benefits more than just participants with disabilities. It also means less need for retrofitting or scrambling to put in place individual accommodations later on. Universal design encourages flexibility and proactive planning, and bonus: you will be protecting yourself from surprises by creating a program that is suited for all.
Some international programs make it a policy to include a confidential health history and clearance form signed by a medical provider and/or an accommodation request form in the acceptance packet sent to each participant. These forms encourage the individual to talk with the medical provider about what is needed while on the program, and allows participants the option to disclose disability information and request accommodations they may require while abroad with the program staff.
To encourage participants to disclose a disability, exchange providers must take steps to create a welcoming, supportive, judgment-free environment. Your office should be upfront regarding the use of medical and disability related information that may otherwise be confidential or private.
The person with a disability wants information and answers to questions that directly relate to their situation, BUT:
You want more people with disabilities in your international programs but they are not applying! What can you do to encourage more participation? Here's 10 ways to boost interest and ensure they not only apply but make it through the process to participate.
Look at your mission statements, non-discrimination policy, or other institutional guidelines, and you are likely to see disability mentioned alongside other aspects of diversity such as racial, gender, or religious equity, and for good reason. Having a diverse community benefits everyone by introducing a wide variety of viewpoints, encouraging open-mindedness, and creating dynamic environments.
Conversations about an exchange participant's disability and/or disability-related accommodations should be done in a confidential setting. Only information from those conversations should be shared with others when they have a need to know.
It's time to advance the rights of people with disabilities in society through infiltration. To achieve equitable opportunities through inclusion. We see international exchange or international development as a tool for improving the lives of people with disabilities globally.
Do not be surprised if disabled participants do not require any accommodations. Many people with disabilities own the equipment they need for everyday life and will only need minimal assistance from others. Remember that each individual participant will have a unique approach to his or her own disability.
Recognize that finding reasonable adaptations is a process of negotiation between exchange coordinators and the participant; the goal of both is to ensure that participant has an accessible, and hopefully successful, international experience.
It is a participant’s choice to disclose (or not disclose) a disability. Once a participant has been accepted, you can confidentially inquire with the participant to determine whether he or she may need accommodations during the program related to mental or physical disabilities. In making disability-related inquiries, you might want to include disability professionals in the conversation too. The individual is protected by the non-discrimination laws if they are perceived as having a disability (even if they did not tell you).