Ripple Effects 4.0: You Can Go Abroad Too!

Four people standing outdoors smile at camera while displaying ASL signs on their hands. An older white man and woman make sign for "interpreter" while two younger people of color show their name signs.

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Justin Harford: Ripple effects comes to you from the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange is a project of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, designed to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA

What does diversity mean to you? We along with other exchange colleagues have spent many years advocating for an understanding of diversity that includes disability in the international exchange field. We believe that is an essential step in order to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange. Slowly we have seen that people are getting the message that disability is diversity.

Fortunately our work has paid off. While exchange professionals used to ask “do we have to, and what exactly does the law require,” now they simply ask “how can we do a better job?” Universities, international development organizations, third-party exchange providers, and government entities actively recruit people with disabilities. They actively work to make sure that all participants with and without disabilities have the tools that they need to succeed after acceptance. In episode 2, I spoke with Chuck Eade and Stephanie Roberts from Denver University about the efforts of their institution to make their exchange programs more diverse. Exchange and disability service professionals like Teneisha Ellis and Suzanne Sears shared some disability-specific tips to study abroad in episode 4.

Exchange providers count on the support of nongovernmental organizations like Mobility International, Abroad with Disabilities and Diversity Abroad to advise them on how to more effectively include students from first-generation, ethnic minority, LGBTQ, and disability backgrounds. In episode 1, I got to speak with Juanita Lillie, Pres. of AWD and Trixie Córdoba, Associate Director of diversity abroad, about the work that we do from outside to increase the participation of people from diverse backgrounds in international exchange by advising and training both prospective exchange participants with disabilities and the professionals who want to send more of them abroad.

We also touched on the “why” in episode 1, and I got to expand on that in episodes 5 and 6, I talked about the impact of international exchange with Mark Bookman and Annie Tulkin, and how their experiences in Japan and Mongolia have shaped their career paths.

So What do exchange programs gain when they put in the extra effort to include disabled participants?

When I spoke with Morgan and Maritheresa in episode 3, they explained that exchange programs are better for everybody when people from diverse backgrounds are encouraged to participate and are supported. The whole point of international exchange is to learn about other ways of living and thinking about the world. It’s great when we can do that by connecting with people from another country, but why not also do it by connecting with the other people that we are studying or volunteering with? That’s why exchange programs are so interested in including people from diverse backgrounds such as those with disabilities.

I don’t know about you, but for me, it was hard at first to wrap my mind around the idea that my disability experience could add value for others. As disabled people, we can be more accustomed to thinking about the extra work that we give other people when we ask for things like accessible housing, alternative media, or reasonable accommodations at work. Even when other people act supportive, it can still seem like there is a dynamic in which they are doing extra work to include us, and we should be grateful that they are going to the trouble. The other dynamic comes from the origin of disability, which is either sickness, injury or birth defect. “Of course people with disabilities are capable, but their disabilities are just one of the many barriers that they have struggled against to reach the success, rather than a catalyst of that success.”

Yet society is better as a direct result of disability, and not despite it. You might be most likely to notice it if you ride a bicycle or push a stroller, it is easier for you to safely and quickly move over to the sidewalks because of the fact that there is a curb cut on just about every corner. If you ever wanted to upload and send photos or text, you can use a scanner, which was originally invented for blind people as part of Ray Kurzweil's reading machine in the 1970s. If you are looking for parental leave or remote work, your request might not seem as far-fetched as it would have 40 years ago, since employers have become more used to making adjustments for employees with disabilities.

People with disabilities also make international exchange better. We feature an article on our website where Megan Smith, a former MIUSA staff member, argues that in the world of international development, communities can sometimes be exclusively pinned as the receivers of help. This can foment resentment and misunderstanding. Does this sound familiar to you? The whole independent living movement was founded by people like Ed Roberts because they were tired of the condescension of social workers and doctors who thought that they knew best. It’s no wonder that people with disabilities would bring a conception of international development more focused around teamwork and mutual support, which fits better with values of interdependence of many other cultures.

Are you a person with a disability wondering about international exchange? Perhaps you are in the process of planning. Maybe you are packing your bags. Or maybe you're just curious. Either way, you might have some questions about how you will make it work. You also might be wondering how program staff, teachers, home stay and host community members will react to you. You might be surprised.

If there is only one thing that you take away from this season, it is that there has never been a better time to study or volunteer overseas than the present. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) is resulting in a string of disability rights laws around the world. Many cultures outside of the West seek to enable people with disabilities to participate in public and private life. At the same time, you have something important to offer these programs just as they have something important to offer you.

So sit back, listen to the insights shared from professionals and disabled exchange alumni, and start thinking about how you can clear up some of those doubts and start preparing for the experience of a lifetime.

Justin: And that concludes today's episode of Ripple Effects: travelers with disabilities abroad. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and letting your friends know you've done so by sharing. If you feel really positively about us, you might also consider leaving us a review on iTunes. All of those things will help us get the word out to more people.