Challenge by Choice

A group of people, including a woman who is blind, under a waterfall with rock climbing gear on
Juanita Lillie, who is blind and studied abroad in Costa Rica, started "Abroad with Disabilities" online group.
What country should I suggest to a person with a disability who wants to study abroad? Should I go to a developing country or Europe for my international volunteer experience? Can I participate on the hiking field excursion or will they say it is too risky for someone who is blind?

In the years I have led disability leadership programs for young leaders with all types of disabilities to places far and wide. Camping under the stars (and bugs!), rolling along on a ferry boat, and pushing to the top of a medieval castle were all part of the program. Was access perfect? No. Were some students more adventurous than others? Yes.

Embedded in the program design was the philosophy of “Challenge by choice”, a term closely associated with adventure sports which acknowledges that any activity or goal may have different levels of challenges or difficulty for each group member. Fear of heights, unfamiliarity with camping outdoors, dislike of nature, or any other variable can put an individual into a “stretch zone” where they are challenging themselves without going into an unsafe or panic zone. We commonly think of this approach as one’s sense of adventure.

Part of any abroad experience is learning to adapt to new situations. All travelers, including those with disabilities, will have to adjust to conditions that are new to him or her. Sometimes it is not possible to make overseas program sites fully or ideally accessible. People with disabilities have the right to choose adventure and risk, and to find their own ways to contend with difficult conditions.

The role of the program administrator is to provide potential participants with complete and accurate information about program sites, discuss possible accommodation strategies, and encourage participants to make informed choices about their participation based that information. A person with a disability who is willing to be flexible in less ideal situations should be able to join any program that fits his or her interests and skills.

This philosophy of “Challenge by Choice,” can guide the individual, the organization and its overseas partners in adopting a positive attitude toward inclusion and the rights of the individual to participate.

When advising people with disabilities going abroad or planning international exchange programs, you too, can incorporate “Challenge by Choice.” Talk with the individual about their comfort level and “stretch zone”, their sense of adventure, and their ability to succeed in less than perfect access conditions.

Choose activities that pose a range of challenges for all group members so that mutual respect of achievements and boundaries can be celebrated by all.

"As a college student, I was encouraged by study abroad staff to travel to places where accessibility would not be challenging, such as the U.K. and Canada, but programs in these countries did not match my goals as a student of a foreign language and international affairs the way Tanzania would." Rachel Garagthy is a wheelchair user and shares her overseas experiences in Tanzania in her blog "The Tale of Two Rachels."


Cerise Roth-Vinson