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.
I've been lucky to have not one but two mentors in my life. I'd say my parents are my mentors because my mom had such a positive "can-do" attitude, and my father also has such a passion for international activities and international travel. I feel I've combined those two things from my parents - both a positive approach for making things happen and a real global outlook in everything I do.
Even though U.S. law protects all students from discrimination when Applying to ESL Programs, students are getting turned away or discouraged if a program states they are “not prepared” to best serve these students. Often the students are not digging deeper because they want to attend a program that is prepared and can offer accessible teaching methods.
How do you advise on access in any country? We find two of the best places to start:
- Connect with disability organizations at that location, and
- Get advice from other travelers with disabilities who have been there.
The disability world is networked enough that one link leads to other referrals until you find what you went seeking. Although accessibility is growing thanks to disability advocates worldwide, what you need may not exist yet in your destination. Don’t let that stop you!
Walking through a sea of white canes and guide dogs at a national convention of the blind community, I started introducing myself as “sighted,” which I had never done before in other contexts. Almost every time I said it, I received a reaction, such as “Oh…I assumed you were blind.” This may have also been due to me asking the blind attendees to help me with directions.
Rummaging through my conference tote-bag, I had to find out the room for my presentation. I asked my co-presenter, who is blind, for the room number.
Anyone concerned with promoting wider participation in study abroad by students with disabilities, or anyone who just needs some encouragement to keep facing hard challenges head-on, should rush to read Susan Sygall's terrific personal memoir, "No Ordinary Days: A Journey of Activism, Globe-Trotting, and Unexpected Pleasures." The co-founder of Mobility International USA (MIUSA), Susan and her organization already have made available a wide range of resources online and in print and offer workshops and conference panels to help all of us do a better job of expanding access to study abroad.
“Have you had students with disabilities on your programs?” I ask this of each study abroad colleague I meet. Sometimes they have detailed stories to share, and even a “thank you” for advice we had given them through our free information and referral services.
Other times, more than I care to admit, I hear back: “There are some destinations that just won't work for students in wheelchairs.”
When I was a college student at the University of Oregon, I spent a lot of extra time on campus outside of class, whether working at one of my part-time jobs or internships (hello, MIUSA!), meeting advisors, studying at my favorite café, or snoozing in the international student lounge (hello, comfy couches!) My roommates rarely saw me. I always thought it was funny how one my friends would prefer to walk home between classes rather than linger on campus, even if there was no time to actually spend at home before it was time to walk to his next class.
If you are like most international exchange professionals, some of the best moments of your job have been making the dream of going abroad possible for someone who thought it was out of reach. Maybe it was money. Maybe it was lack of family support. Others didn’t have a role model. And some have faced discrimination and rejection. Have you ever thought about how you – just one person – can make a difference for people with disabilities?
At Mobility International USA, everywhere I travel I am in awe of the youth leaders with disabilities I meet who are changing the world. At Mobility International USA (MIUSA), we are working towards a world where all people with disabilities achieve their full human rights through international exchange and development. We believe that the path to a more inclusive world lies in people with disabilities connecting with their peers and allies across the world and working together.