As I work with Stephanie Collins to get set-up for our presentation to the University of Oregon’s AccessAbility Student Union – we’re here to talk about opportunities for students with disabilities to go abroad - she moves about the room easily and swiftly. There is plenty of space and few hazards in the room. No need for her white cane here; all she needs is her panda bear-shaped memory stick containing her presentation slideshow.
As a Critical Language Scholar studying abroad in Dalian, China, Stephanie didn’t always need her white cane to navigate either. Sometimes she would just grab the elbow of a classmate or buddy – handy for crossing the raised thresholds in a Buddhist temple for example – while other times, like today, she moved easily through familiar or accessible spaces without using any assistive device or person.
But sometimes she made a point to use her white cane anyway, not as a tool to guide herself, but as a tool to educate others. Her white cane helped signal the presence of a person with a disability in places where people with disabilities aren’t often seen.
Whether trekking along the Great Wall of China with friends, strolling around campus, or walking down the street to run errands, she wanted others to know that a blind person was right there with them, doing the same activities that they were doing. Similarly, in the classroom, she kept her assistive devices on her desk in plain sight, even if she didn’t need them.
Thinking about times in my own travels when I’ve tried to blend in and minimize what makes me different from people in the host community, it was refreshing to listen to Stephanie explain how being a bit more conspicuous can sometimes defy low expectations and misperceptions.
Although Stephanie was in China to learn the language, she relished opportunities to teach others about her disability and inclusion. She showed her host mom how independent she could be. She taught her teachers and classmates what they needed to do so she could participate in the lessons. In a culture where talking about disability is often done in hushed tones, if at all, Stephanie made the topic as approachable and natural as discussing her passion for international travel, the Mandarin language, and Chinese cuisine.
One AASU student was deeply moved by Stephanie’s open display of disability pride, which resonated with her on a personal level: “When I was growing up, my mom denied her own hearing loss and told me that I shouldn’t let anyone find out about my learning disability. But why shouldn’t I? It’s part of who I am!”
Whether you have an apparent or non-apparent disability, whether or not you use assistive devices or not, your presence abroad can make a powerful statement – one in which people with disabilities are not hidden from, but rather an important part of, the global community.
Want to hear more about Stephanie’s experience in China while learning more about the Critical Language Scholarship? Play the recording of a CLS webinar for students with disabilities, in which Stephanie is a guest presenter. Also learn about our #AccessLanguages campaign and join in!