Creating Community in a Virtual Space

Zoom screenshot of 6 participants; most are in their 20s
Presenters, MIUSA facilitators, and ASL interpreters during one of 10 virtual Joining Hands events via Zoom.
What we learned from hosting Joining Hands, our first-ever virtual symposium on cross-disability inclusion in international exchange.

"Travel has been haulted due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak."

"This conference has been cancelled due to the global pandemic."

These were common headlines staff were seeing across all sectors. These were also headlines not only event-goers were monitoring, but also event planners, such as ourselves for our originally planned Joining Hands Symposium in Washington, DC for July 2020. 

And the questions began:

"Do we cancel, postpone, or turn our onsite event into a virtual event?"

"How do we make a virtual event engaging?"

"How do create community in this virtual space?"

"What technology do we need to make a virtual event happen and accessible?"

And once the NCDE decided to turn the Joining Hands Symposium into a virtual program, somehow these questions turned into creativity, opportunity, and an energy where COVID-19 was no longer discussed. Designing the Joining Hands Virtual Symposium became this new and dynamic program which would allow us to reach such diverse presenters and attendees including almost 1,000 registrants from 70 countries and to immerse ourselves into learning more about accessible virtual experiences for people with all types of disabilities. 

And now reflecting on the program which spanned over 2 weeks, I am so thrilled to see what we were able to share and learn from each other and especially to witness the new directions international exchange is moving into with the growing commitment and practices for disability inclusion.

What did we experience over the 2 weeks?

  • Through this virtual platform, we heard from disability activists from all across the world about the impact of international exchange on disability rights
  • We had an in-depth conversation on disability and intersectionality with international exchange alumni with disabilities and who identify with other diverse identities
  • We collected a number of posters on inclusion through our Virtual Poster Fair
  • Many joined us for “Disability at the Movies” watching the short film Opening Doors to College discussing the hundreds of colleges across the U.S. that are opening doors to higher education for students with intellectual disabilities followed by a discussion on opening doors to study abroad for the students as well
  • We also learned many practical tips from building accessible virtual exchange programs to identifying resources and tools to support and fully integrate both American and international participants with disabilities in all types of international exchange programs.

During the very last session, exchange alumna and NCDE Extern Johna Wright shared with us:

"Every time I go abroad, I just feel this sense of empowerment and pride in myself and in the disability community, seeing that we're able to go abroad and that you always have people within the disability community to support you, if you ever need anything while you're abroad.” 

People with disabilities have so much to benefit and grow from participating in international exchange programs just as non-disabled people, and we have to do more. The new direction in international exchange is not only about ensuring people with disabilities are included in international exchange programs, but also that we continue to invest and build the leadership potential for people with disabilities through international exchange.

How do we do this? We create an inclusive and intentional approach from the very beginning, we listen to students’ unique needs, and we create opportunities for ongoing growth for ourselves and for our participants through internships, employment, and additional leadership skill building programs. And we stay connected to this community that we are building through Joining Hands and the NCDE.


Monica Malhotra